February 9, 2009


America's worst nightmare made real: a review of The Silent Man By Alex Berenson (Steven Martinovich, February 9, 2009, Enter Stage Right)

A reader could be forgiven in wondering how likely a theft of a nuclear warhead really is, and more importantly if it could be utilized in an attack given the safeguards that are in place. There have been rumours for years of missing Russian nuclear weapons, including the 1997 claim by former Russian National Security Advisor Alexander Lebed that more than one hundred suitcase nuclear weapons were missing, though there are questions whether the Soviet Union ever even developed the technology or they were already deployed to potential targets. And given that the construction of a nuclear weapon – assuming sufficient weapons grade material is available – is within the technological capabilities even many universities, it is six decade old technology after all, perhaps the fiction is closer to reality than we think.

His hero, John Wells, is yet another of those Jason Bourne-esque killers expert in every conceivable spy craft, but he's also very human and occasionally runs against the grain of what we expect from a fictional spy. And while he seems capable of handling every situation, we can also see that the effort is beginning to wear him down. The plausibility of its narrative is all too real and allowed Berenson to craft an engaging story. The Silent Man is a hugely entertaining effort and far too chillingly realistic.

I couldn't agree with Friend Martinovich more. Mr. Berenson delivers a top-notch thriller once again. But hopefully he's going to retire John Wells who is quite burned out by the end of the book--okay, by the middle.

Meanwhile, one of the most fascinating aspects of Mr. Berenson's fiction continues to be the critique of politics, geo-politics, and government bureaucracies that he stitches into the story. Fear not, he's not a didactic author, but he does have important things to say. For example, two of the most memorable scenes in the book, which don't even involve John Wells, convey instructive lessons. In the first, a terrorist who has become somewhat reluctant fearfully tells his wife what his cell is working on. Not only is she not surprised, she's thrilled; in fact she's aroused and initiates sex for the first time in their marriage. Her bloodthirtiness makes a powerful counterweight to the slight sympathy her husband's doubts might have provoked. In the other, there's a meeting in the Oval Office to consider what should be done if the government can't locate the bombers. Wells's CIA boss, and nemesis, spends the meeting trying to figure out how to guarantee that he maintains his own position regardless of whether Washington is nuked or not. This portrayal of bureaucrats whose primary interest is the bureaucracy and their own place in it, rather than the country and its vital interests, is a consistent theme of the books and an important insight into how the Founders' balance of powers has been thrown off by the rise of an institution they'd never considered, the permanent bureaucracy.

Mr. Berenson handles action and the details of spycraft and terrorism well enough that his books would work were they merely thrillers. But the manner in which he folds in these broader ideas lifts them to the top of the genre.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2009 8:44 AM
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