If you are a fan of thriller fiction and Alex Berenson is not on your “must read” list, then you need to take the first step toward remedying that state of affairs by reading THE SHADOW PATROL. Berenson’s series of espionage thrillers featuring (now former) CIA agent John Wells are among the most well-written, carefully researched and meticulously plotted novels one is likely to encounter in any genre. Over the course of five books, Wells has penetrated al Qaeda, prevented at least two world wars, and short-circuited terrorist attacks on American soil.
"Berenson is one of the very few authors whose work I deliberately read at a slow, measured pace for the best of reasons: I don’t want the latest book, whatever it might be, to end. I found myself doing this yet again while reading THE SHADOW PATROL. There is no higher praise I can give it than that."
This would be the stuff of fancy in the hands of a less-talented author. But Berenson has that rare ability that renders his characters --- and the events they create --- a part of the real world. At times, Berenson has seemed almost prescient in his creation of events. Wells, his mainstay character, is memorable not only for his skill set but also for the contradictions that form his core. Raised as a Christian who then converted to Islam, Wells seems an unlikely agent for our times. A firm believer but not a strong practitioner of the faith, he knows all too well the frequently hostile territory he treads. Though retired from the CIA, Wells continues to find himself being drawn back, however reluctantly, into the dangerous world of spy craft for the best and worst of reasons: it is what he is, and it is what he does.
In THE SHADOW PATROL, the sixth and newest book in the series, Wells is transported to the American front lines in Afghanistan, a country where his career in espionage began. This time, though, he is tasked with “infiltrating” the CIA’s Kabul station. Years before, the station was attacked by a suicide bomber, leaving all of its senior officers dead. The station still has not fully recovered; worse, there is some concern that the Taliban has somehow infiltrated the station. Wells enters Kabul in his own identity, ostensibly to generally evaluate the station and its personnel, while quietly looking for signs that the station has been compromised. He is met, for the most part, with a veneer of cooperation and barely-concealed hostility.
It is only when he makes contact with enlisted men on the base that Wells begins to make headway, uncovering a plot that stretches from Chicago to Karachi and back again. He finds himself up against any number of dangerous characters, with the worst being those who are at his back. The hills of Afghanistan are full of deceit, lies and treachery, all of it concealing layer upon layer of a plot whose seeds were sown years before in tragedy. Beset at the end from all sides, Wells has nowhere to go but forward, even as the number of people he can trust slowly but steadily dwindles.
Berenson is a master of creating complex yet comprehensible plots that move the reader steadily through an increasingly dangerous maze. At the same time, he understands his territory at any number of different levels. His criticisms of US foreign policy have always been thoughtful and measured --- those hoping for reflexive mad-dog attacks are advised to go elsewhere --- and this is particularly true in his latest novel. His portrait of men, both good and bad, in conflict is first rate; in fact, his psychological description of a sniper who perhaps has been in the field too long is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Berenson is one of the very few authors whose work I deliberately read at a slow, measured pace for the best of reasons: I don’t want the latest book, whatever it might be, to end. I found myself doing this yet again while reading THE SHADOW PATROL. There is no higher praise I can give it than that.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 27, 2012