By Nelson DeMille
Grand Central Publishing, $27.99, 437 pages
Nelson DeMille has not lost a step. It’s been a decade since he published “The Lion’s Game” (2000) in which his prize creation, retired NYPD Detective John Corey, tangled with the notorious killer Asad Khalil. The KGB-trained Libyan national, known as “the Lion,” had arrived in the United States to avenge the death of his family during the American bombing of Tripoli in 1986.
At the conclusion of the novel, having left a long windrow of corpses in his wake, Khalil has narrowly escaped capture but promises Corey by telephone to return someday and kill him along with FBI agent Kate Mayfield, Corey’s wife and partner. Mr. DeMille’s fans have been itching for a rematch ever since. The time has come, and in “The Lion” Mr. DeMille has crafted the long-awaited return confrontation between the wisecracking, tough-as-nails Corey with the single-minded ascetic Khalil. And, as they say, this time it’s personal.
In the earlier novel, published before the Sept. 11 attacks, Asad Khalil instantly entered the reader’s pantheon of nightmare villains from the moment he made his violent arrival in the United States aboard a doomed trans-Atlantic airliner. In “The Lion,” set a few years after Sept. 11, Khalil returns to the United States, unobtrusively this time, but swiftly takes up where he left off: killing everyone with whom he has a score to settle. This time, he combines Islamic fervor, absorbed from training with the Taliban and al Qaeda, with the desire for revenge.
His killings, performed in the name of God and His Prophet, are not only merciless but utterly cruel. He adds a beheading to his resume, along with a garroting and two murders with an ice pick. Then Khalil gets on the fighting side of John Corey, a dangerous place to be. He assaults Kate Mayfield with a knife, and then prepares to stalk her husband, his final victim. For Corey, Khalil has the worst fate of all in store: By telephone, he taunts the detective that he intends to horribly mutilate Corey’s face and genitals with a knife, leaving him alive to kill himself to escape the living horror he has become. That is, if Khalil’s grisly plan succeeds.
Well aware of Khalil’s potential to strike at will, Corey and his law-enforcement colleagues prepare to draw out a seemingly unstoppable killer who has blended into New York’s teeming masses like a ghost. Realizing that Khalil will neither be taken alive nor thwarted by appeals to join hands and sing “Kumbaya,” Corey knows that he must outthink, outmaneuver and kill the Lion - despite the urgings of his superiors on the Federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force to take Khalil alive.
In the earlier novel, John Corey’s jaded, ribald narration - much of it not suitable for quotation in a family newspaper - interspersed with third-person chapters describing Khalid’s activities, keeps the story clipping along at breakneck speed. Mr. DeMille uses an identical technique in “The Lion,” although here the author employs long, tension-inducing stretches in which Corey and his associates wait for Khalil to make his move: When will he strike at Corey, and where? The waiting alone builds excitement for the ugly showdown between the two antagonists, one that resembles more the death grapple of two predatory animals than a confrontation between human beings.
With his streetwise disdain for the inhabitants of “East Wheatfield, Iowa” and “East Cow Meadow, Minnesota,” Detective Corey is a master of the urban put-down and comic understatement, as when he describes the aftermath of a wisecrack he playfully directed to the hospitalized but still-feisty Kate: “She tried to flash me the peace sign, but in her weakened condition, she only managed to raise her middle finger.” He speaks admiringly of SWAT snipers who possess the skill to “shoot the chewing gum out of a guy’s mouth and not chip his teeth.”
For all his street smarts, does Corey stand a chance against the superbly trained Khalil? As former KGB agent Boris Korsakov, who trained the Lion in the art of killing long ago, advises Corey, Khalil “will pass up an opportunity to safely blow your head off at two hundred meters, and he will attack you in a most personal way - the way a lion attacks, with his teeth, and his claws, he needs to taste your blood. And like a cat playing with a mouse, he often plays with his victim and taunts him before killing him. This is important to him. So if you survive the initial assault, you may have a chance to respond.”
That and the knowledge that Khalil cannot control his rage when the tough-talking Corey verbally “disrespects” him (for example, calling Khalil’s mother a whore) may prove to be the killer’s downfall.
For all that is terribly wrong about Khalil as a human being, he is nevertheless a fascinating man. Thinking back on his assault on Kate Mayfield, Khalid speculates on the possibility that she lost enough blood to be brain-damaged but not killed (as he had hoped). “He wondered what Allah did with these impaired people whose spirits could neither ascend into Paradise nor be banished to Hell. Perhaps, he thought, there was a place for these souls to dwell while awaiting their ultimate destination - a place where dead minds controlled aimless bodies - a place not unlike an American shopping mall.” Ouch.
Elsewhere in the novel, upon gazing at the towering buildings of Manhattan, Khalil wonders at the wealth and power they represent and notes how easy it is for jihadists to become discouraged at the sight of it all. “But he recalled the Roman ruins of Libya - all that remained of the greatest imperial power the world had ever seen. In the end, he thought, the greatest armies and navies were nothing when the people believed in nothing. The wealth of an empire corrupted the people and their government, and they were no match for a people who believed in something higher than their bellies, and who worshipped God, not gold.”
Much of which is true, though the light that illuminates Khalil’s spirit is darkness: all self-righteousness, death and vengeance.
The hell with him, John Corey would say; while Khalil insists that Corey himself is destined for hell. These evenly matched enemies, alike in some ways and quite different in others, meet for the final time in “The Lion,” a thriller in which Mr. DeMille puts on a clinic demonstrating how to move a story along with memorable characters and a plot that is all too plausible in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books) and a longtime book reviewer.