- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

Here is a problem faced by authors of first-time best-selling thrillers: You have spent time and energy crafting a powerful, evocative, unique character and placing him/her in both physical and emotional jeopardy under nail-biting, page-turning circumstances. The book is published to glowing reviews, wins awards and sells well. And the only question everybody wants to know the answer to is: When’s the sequel?

This, in a nutshell, is what happened to New York Times reporter Alex Berenson. Mr. Berenson’s first novel, “The Faithful Spy,” featured John Wells, the only CIA operative ever to penetrate al Qaeda. And so, some two years after “Faithful Spy,” comes now a sequel, The Ghost War (G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $24.95, 286 pages).

The plot is timely: Li Ping, a ruthless Chinese general, wants become China’s undisputed ruler. To achieve this, he puts into play a series of shadow-war operations. These tactical jabs threaten U.S. interests and push China’s Politburo Standing Committee — the insiders who run the People’s Republic of China and are unaware of the true nature of Li’s scheme — toward a major confrontation with the United States. John Wells must save the day.

Interesting premise? Sure. But the execution is disappointing. “The Ghost War” reads as if Mr. Berenson didn’t want to put a lot of effort into the sequel and his editors didn’t feel like editing. The result? “Ghost War” is a prime example of that old Chinese proverb, “Never steal more chain than you can swim with.”

It sinks because what we get is a by-the-numbers thriller. The prose lacks the kinetic energy, artful plotting, nail-biting tick-tock, and outside-the-box inventiveness of “Faithful Spy.” Equally disturbing, it reads as if nobody bothered to edit the manuscript. Lines like “Exley allowed her hand to rest companionably on Wells’s leg” are just plain clumsy.

Mr. Berenson manages to use the word “burble” to describe both the sound of a coffee-maker in full perc and the rumble made by the engine of John Wells’ 100-plus-miles-an-hour motorcycle. And whoever allowed Mr. Berenson to get away with “Beck pulled his wallet out of his pocket, a battered piece of cowhide that had seen him through thirty-two countries and three counterinsurgencies” should be sent back to editor school and forced to diagram sentences for a month.

The copy-editing was no better. Like the fact that military vessels tend not to have cabins, but bridges, that an AK-47 round is not 5.56 X 45 millimeters but 7.62 X 39 millimeters, that a Company of Soldiers does not number 10, that Chateau Lafitte 1992 is universally regarded as an off-year vintage (and that in any case it’s clumsy to describe a vintage Bordeaux as a “burgundy liquid”), that fast-roping from a helicopter doesn’t involve shimmying but is a controlled fall, and that exiting the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules aircraft involves climbing down a ladder not simply opening a door.

And then there’s this “Tucked in a shoulder holster [Wells] carried a pistol, a Glock … with a silencer threaded to the barrel.” Fact: fitting a suppressed pistol into a shoulder holster is cumbersome. The most recent suppressed Glock I shot is a Model 19 fitted with a Gemtec Trinity suppressor. It measured fifteen inches from the tip of the suppressor to the back strap of the grip. Wells’s Glock —even if he’s used a sub-compact — would have been a challenge to conceal in a shoulder holster, much less draw.

Worse, the characters have all been cut from the same cartoon panel. The austere General Li and his fat cat Politburo Standing Committee Colleagues toast one another with French wines and vintage cognacs. And then there’s Pierre Kowalski, Villainous Weapons Dealer. Here’s how we meet him: “Kowalski, a fat man with little pig eyes, slept alone in the oversized four-poster bed, white silk sheets draped around him like icing on a lumpy cake.” ‘icing on a lumpy cake’? Puh-leez.

We meet Kowalski again in the book’s epilog, where Mr. Berenson notes, “As a boy he’d been handsome. He still thought of himself that way, despite his triple chin, C-cup breasts, and size 50 waist.” More troubling than those C-cups is Kowalski’s exit line: “I told the man who attacked me that I would make him pay. No matter who he was. And I think … I must keep my promise.” One gets the uneasy feeling that Mr. Berenson may want to keep swimming. Glub-glub.


There are some thrillers in which broad strokes contribute positively. Earl Emerson’s Primal Threat (Ballantine Books, $25, 350 pages) is one of them. “Primal Threat” is a twenty-first century morality play — a thriller whose characters are put in jeopardy so we can see how each of them deals with the life-and-death situation.

The book’s central character is a firefighter named Zak Polanski who has a real thing about getting people out of crashed cars. In the course of performing one of these rescues he meets a young woman named Nadine Newcastle. Zak and Nadine are polar opposites. She’s rich, goes to Bible class, plays tennis like a pro, has a protective older brother named Kasey and an abusive, snotty rich-kid boyfriend named William Potter, III, known as Scooter.

Zak comes from lower-middle class stock. He doesn’t think about religion, carries a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude when it comes to spoiled rich folks, and has a real passion for mountain biking. His other passion is women. As one of Zak’s firefighter colleagues, a fellow mountain-biker named Muldaur puts it: “Zak could pick up women in a garbage dump … and they’d be gorgeous, too.”

Zak and Nadine have a Romeo and Juliet affair — against her parents’ wishes of course — and then it’s over. Almost. Almost, because for Zak, for whom the term “permanent relationship” previously meant anything over 12 hours, there is this gnawing feeling that Nadine and he should be together.

Time passes. Zak and four of his friends head out for a weekend of mountain biking. They are trailed by Nadine’s ex-boyfriend Scooter, her brother Kasey, and a bunch of their friends. Needless to say, the rich kids have alcohol and weapons in their SUVs. Needless to say, the situation gets nasty. Very nasty. People die. And then, the mountains ignite — perhaps from arson, perhaps from natural causes, and all the players are now at risk in more ways than one.

Mr. Emerson knows fires, and he knows mountain-biking, and his familiarity with the subjects breathe real life into the book. He also infuses these morality-play characters with enough psychological traits to make them flesh-and-blood most of the time. And if some of his characters — Nadine’s brother Kasey and her ex-boyfriend Scooter come to mind — are reminiscent of cartoonish bad guys like Josh LaHood, the villain of Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider,” that’s okay too. Subtlety of character was extraneous in the morality play “Everyman.” It’s not necessary here, either.

John Weisman’s most recent novel, “Direct Action” is currently available from Avon Books.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide