Dick Wolf, creator of the preposterously successful "Law & Order" television franchise, extends his brand masterfully in "The Intercept," the first of what promises to be a series of thrillers starring New York Police Department Detective Jeremy Fisk.
Except for the good guys and gals, things are not what they seem in this expertly plotted, serviceably written novel. It starts with a jihadist on a mission, introduces Fisk, and then accelerates sharply, bringing the reader aboard a plane headed for New York. There, a brave group of passengers subdues a terrorist who, it seems, is bent on hijacking the airliner and replicating -- no, exceeding -- the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that give this novel such topicality.
By Dick Wolf
Like the protagonists of "Law & Order" and its spinoffs, Fisk and his partner, Krina Gersten, are tormented but tough, tortured but tender. Neither is developed as fully as some members of the passenger group that tackles the terrorist on the plane, let alone the terrorists, particularly the brutal and sly Baada Bin-Hezam, a key cog in a plot to go Sept. 11 one better during a July 4 ceremony dedicating the new One World Trade Center building.
Mr. Wolf, who turned formula into high art in "Law & Order" and its most successful spinoff, "Law & Order: SVU," uses many of the same devices he deploys so effectively on TV: crosscutting, scene-shifting, manipulating points of view. That's how he builds suspense no matter his medium.
Deception is at the core of this tense book, starting with the foiled hijacking, which makes heroes of "The Six," the passengers who bring the would-be terrorist to ground. Fisk, however, is a natural skeptic who senses something amiss in the foiling, as if it missed the point. Was the would-be hijacker, Awaan Abdulraheem, a decoy, a kind of maguffin?
And so the novel splits into separate tracks, ratcheting up the suspense. One follows The Six as they grow accustomed to celebrity. The other elevates Fisk to lead intel officer in an all-out New York effort, replete with bureaucratic turf wars, to prevent what Fisk feels might be a disaster. New York, more than Fisk, is the hero here.
Mr. Wolf depicts The Six skillfully if sentimentally, painting the journalist Colin Frank as a sloppy opportunist, flight attendant Maggie Sullivan as too good-hearted to be true, and the chilly Swede, Magnus Jenssen, as both sinister and sexy. The writing is workmanlike, though by no means eloquent. Mr. Wolf is not particularly colorful, but he's always efficient.
He's also very good at a kind of typecasting, creating a black-and-white schema by contrasting the morally pure (and rather one-dimensional) Fisk and the slightly more realized Gersten with their enemies: sexually squeamish Arabs disgusted by the profligacy of American culture. Mr. Wolf gets inside the jihadi mindset effectively, if predictably.
He also blends fiction and fact well, delivering cameo appearances by Osama bin Laden, journalist Matt Lauer, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the songwriter Paul Simon, even former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama (they're both off stage, but they loom dramatically). "The Intercept" can read like product placement.
The takeaway is that today, celebrity itself can be both a mask and a target. Without revealing too much of the plot (in "The Intercept," the plot is virtually all), keep your eyes on The Six; even the detours are intriguing. And don't lose track of the decoys and sleepers that give "The Intercept" more depth than Mr. Wolf's minimalist, efficient style suggests.
Carlo Wolff (carlowolff.com) is a writer and critic living in Cleveland and a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.