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Review: The Devil’s Light

Richard North Patterson rips a terrorist plot from the headlines — then has it ripped from his hands

Richard North Patterson’s The Devil’s Light — a political thriller about al Qaeda terrorists who strike again on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 — had long been scheduled for release on Tuesday, May 3. A little over 24 hours before the novel’s publication, however, a U.S. covert ops unit in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad took out one of the book’s key characters.

Plan B, anyone?

Set in August and September of 2011, the novel conjures up a nightmare scenario in which al Qaeda gets its hands on a nuclear bomb — the “devil’s light” of the book’s title. The group’s resulting schemes threaten new levels of destruction, sending shockwaves of fear across the United States and around the world. Controlling events from the shadows stands Osama bin Laden, hiding out in Pakistan as his myrmidons unleash a plot to “fill the world with awe, our enemies with dread.”

U.S. Navy SEALs may have shot a hole (or two) in the plot of Patterson’s latest — and it’s tough not to read the early chapters without that awareness — but you’ll be surprised by how little recent real-world events defuse the terrifying possibilities outlined in these pages. Indeed, much of the prose here meshes all too plausibly with the headlines you’ll find in most any newspaper, a testament to the author’s thorough research and precise plotting.

As with many of Patterson’s books, The Devil’s Light examines internationally scaled political crises through the human-sized dramas of several characters with personal stakes in that larger story. The world is seen through their eyes — and felt through their hearts, since love affairs are frequently at the root of the individual conflicts.

Brooke Chandler is just one of the CIA agents consulting on the latest crisis, but his background imbues his professional work with personal urgency. Years before the novel opens, Chandler had been initiated into the complex politics and passions of the Middle East by his graduate work in Near Eastern Studies and a love affair with a beautiful Israeli scholar (the romance is related via flashbacks). Chandler’s loss of his best friend in the 9/11 attacks prompted him to join the CIA, and his first stint as an operative in Lebanon drove home the potentially tragic intersection of personal allegiance, cold bureaucracy and competing political agendas.

Those experiences haunt Chandler in the early going. But as reports emerge about the theft and transport of a nuclear weapon in the region, he realizes that the tormenting episodes have also given him the insight and expertise — and key contacts — needed for a mission to neutralize the terrorist threat.

Brooke’s adversary is longtime jihadist Amer Al Zaroor. Logistically gifted and ideologically single-minded, Al Zaroor masterminds the plan to obtain and detonate the bomb, and he personally shepherds it westward from the India/Pakistan border toward its fateful destination — a terminus that only Chandler seems able to predict.

To his credit, Patterson doesn’t demonize Al Zaroor any more than he glorifies Brooke. The two men are complex and multidimensional characters, not a paper-thin villain opposed by a dashing hero. Though the author’s own politics percolate through the pages (he tilts a tad left), Patterson takes pains to present a wide array of perspectives — geographic, political and philosophic.

That’s a strength and a weakness. The political terrain of the Middle East is intricate, to say the least, and Patterson is commendably intent on exploring and explaining it. But despite his best efforts to furnish brief context on Sunnis, Shias, Maronites, Hezbollah, Fatah al-Islam, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the Mossad, the Falange, the Druze, and other groups, as well as a panoply of individual political leaders and historical figures … well, the list makes its own point: If you’re hazy on the background of these players, The Devil’s Light may leave you hungering for a cheat sheet. Patterson keeps any pedantry grounded in the action, but the information overload occasionally tips the balance too far — as in a kitchen scene consisting of long paragraphs about the hall of mirrors that is Lebanese politics punctuated by snippets of dialogue on how to prepare a salmon glaze: “Let’s serve dinner … Then tell me how they smuggle the bomb.”

Ultimately, The Devil’s Light entertains and educates in nearly equal measure, opening readers’ eyes not just to dark possibilities but to harsh realities that many of us now see only dimly, if it all.

Art Taylor is a regular reviewer of mysteries and thrillers for AARP The Magazine, The Washington Post, and other publications.