The Silent Man by Alex Berenson

the-silent-manThe New York Times starts its review of The Silent Man by Alex Berenson this way:

A novel can, and should, do many things, but a thriller need do only one. If it thrills, it succeeds, and if it does not, no matter how well it does everything else, it fails. Alex Berenson’s third novel, “The Silent Man,” succeeds in seizing the attention from the start and never letting go until the end.

I might want to argue with the first two sentences, or at least quibble a bit, but I think the review is right when it comes to Berenson’s latest book.

As we have discussed in our reviews of the previous John Wells novels (The Faithful Spy and The Ghost War), John Wells started out with an interesting hook (first Western spy to infiltrate Al Quada, convert to Islam, etc.) but hasn’t much developed beyond all round tough guy super spy.  Not that he is a particularly one dimensional for the genre, just that he is typical of the genre.

What Berenson does well is set up a plausible terrorist attack or military threat and then start the clock on Wells’s attempt to keep it from happening.  As the story plays out the pace quickens and the tension rises.  And Berenson gives the reader the view from all sides; inside and out of the plot – minor and major characters.  In the end you know Wells will save the day, but you don’t know how and how many people will die in between.

This time the focus is on a plot to smuggle a  nuclear bomb into America and detonate it for maxim damage: at the State of the Union address.  Character depth aside, Berenson again delivers an entertaining high stakes action thriller.

Berenson starts the plot off with the acquisition of the warheads from a facility in the former Soviet Union and traces the plot all the way to upstate New York where three men are working to convert the material into a workable bomb. Wells is tied into this plot via his connection with  another reoccurring character: Pierre Kowalski an international arms dealer.  Wells had earlier humiliated Kowalski by duct taping his head after getting the information he needed about who was funding the training of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Kowalksi vowed revenge.

His attempt at revenge is thwarted by Wells but not before his lover, Jennifer Exley,  is critically injured.  This attack also strains their relationship to the breaking point as Well is intent on revenge while Exley wants a life beyond the CIA.

As in the last book, this tension, and Wells’s self-doubt, gets tiresome.  Berenson can’t pull off the emotional depth and so the interpersonal aspects just slow the story down.  It is as if Berenson wants Wells to be more than a James Bond type but can’t quite pull it off.

But these interludes are really just a small part of the book so the intrusion is minimal.  The interesting thing about Wells is that he seems to fall upward in many ways.  His chief skills is survival.  He is not suave and slick so much as cold, hard, and brutal (part of his self-doubt is the question of whether that is all he is).  He blunders in Moscow and his superiors distrust of his go-it-alone attitude undercuts him in Berlin.  But thanks to a deal with the hated Kowalski of all people he gets enough of a lead to track the plot to a farm in upstate New York.  The book ends with a highly suspenseful race between the terrorists – including one who is having second thoughts – and Wells.

As others has noted, Berenson brings a reporters eye for detail and story to his craft.  He may not have the literary sensibility and talents necessary to create deep and three dimensional characters but he sure can spin a thrilling yet plausible and convincing plot.

And as so many reviewers have noted, the books all leave you with an uncomfortable feeling because the threats all seem so real and all too possible.  The beauraucrats who seem to care more about defending their turf and reputations than about protecting America and saving lives.  The terrorists who thrive on grievances both real and imagined; historical and deeply personal.  The potentially soul destroying nature of intelligence and its neccissity in a dangerous world.  Berenson captures all of this with precision and uses it to power his plots.  Pulling that off is no mean feat.

So if you like thrillers that capture the threats and fears of today’s newspaper headlines Alex Berenson’s John Wells novels should be on your list.  If you haven’t started the series I recommend starting at the beginning.  If you have, be sure to check out The Silent Man.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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