It's time once again to enter the isolation reading room. Alex Berenson's fifth John Wells novel has been published, and it demands your immediate and focused attention. Berenson's writing, plotting and characterization are darkly brilliant and instructional, an incidental manual, as it were, on the topic of spy tradecraft. He also makes an effort, as few do, to get the history of Islam, and the differences that roil within the religion, correct without losing objectivity. The book would be worth reading just for the few pages that present this, but there is much more here that is worth your while --- from the tight plotting to the true-to-life action to the believable characterization.
THE SECRET SOLDIER begins with Wells having left the CIA in disgust. But the world of espionage has not left him. So it is that Wells is drawn back into the world of spycraft from an unanticipated direction. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is losing his hold on life, and with it the tenuous grasp he maintains upon his kingdom. A series of terrorist attacks, carried out by other than the usual suspects, leads back to his front door, and Abdullah believes that the instigators are part of his own royal family with ties to the radical fringes of Islam. Abdullah, through an unexpected intermediary, reaches out to Wells for help. Wells reluctantly agrees, drawn not only by the potential danger to the United States but also to his own Islamic faith.
Wells's investigation leads him into places he never expected. There is indeed a plot, but it involves more than the line of succession to the Saudi Arabian monarchy. What had started as a treacherous jockeying for position of power is turning into a scheme to bring about a dangerous --- and final --- conflagration between America and Islam. The CIA is there to help, but only up to a point, and soon Wells is not sure if he can even trust his erstwhile employer, upon whose head the crown of rule rests more uneasily by the day. When a direct attack is made upon the American presence in the region, it is only Wells, aided ably by Gaffan, his stolid and occasionally difficult protégé, who stands between a runaway plan and worldwide chaos. And Wells, while never too little, may be too late.
The brilliance of Berenson's work is his ability to make Wells's accomplishments credible. This is particularly true here, where Wells does with the equivalent of spit and sealing wax what the might and majesty of two governments are unable to accomplish, and without any MacGyver sort of derring-do. But what is extraordinary is that Berenson manages yet again to create a work that seems to have benefited from an advance peek at next week's headlines. I started to read THE SECRET SOLDIER just as unrest boiled over in Egypt. Yes, yes, I know --- different country, different form of government. All of the same players, though, were in place and present, and for the same reasons.
If you want to understand what is going on there, you need the backdrop of history, and there are few who present it quite as well as Berenson. Not to be missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011