- - Friday, December 7, 2012

By Nelson DeMille
Grand Central, $27.99, 640 pages

John Corey, a tough, wisecracking NYPD detective-turned-contract federal-agent for the New York Anti-Terrorist Task Force, is back on the hunt in Nelson DeMille’s new thriller, “The Panther.”

Corey, who hunted down Asad Khalil, a Libyan terrorist called “the Lion” in an earlier thriller, is on the trail of another big cat. Bulus ibn al-Darwish — aka “al-Numair,” or “the Panther” — is a high-ranking al Qaeda operative who was born and raised in Perth Amboy, N.J.

Operating in Yemen, the Panther is suspected of being one of the masterminds who planned and executed the bombing of the USS Cole. He is also wanted for the attack on a French oil tanker and other terrorist attacks, kidnappings and murders.

The novel’s narrative alternates between the third person when describing the Panther’s actions and the first person with Corey as the narrator. The novel opens in the third person with a horrific scene in which the Panther and his men murder a group of Belgian tourists in Yemen.

Then, despite the novel’s grim subject, Corey, as narrator, offers what begins a steady stream of irreverent humor and sarcastic asides throughout this big book.

“It was Friday — what we call Federal Friday — meaning that by 4:30, my colleagues in the war on terrorism, mostly FBI agents and NYPD detectives, had left to beat the bridge and tunnel traffic, or they’d gone off on special assignments to the surrounding bars and restaurants,” Corey says. “With any luck, I’d be joining them shortly. But first I had to see Tom Walsh, who is in charge of the New York Anti-Terrorist Task Force. And what did Mr. Walsh want to see me about? His email had said: John, Kate, my office, 5:15. Private. Subject Yemen.

Yemen? Typo, maybe. Yemex? A new kind of explosive? Maybe he meant ‘Yes-men.’ Too many yes-men in the organization.”

The aforementioned Kate is Corey’s wife and on-the-job partner, FBI Special Agent Kate Mayfield. Corey and Mayfield are ostensibly dispatched to Yemen to help capture the Panther. Corey, being a suspicious type with huge issues with authority, figures that the FBI is sending him and his wife to Yemen to serve as bait, like a tethered goat, to lure the Panther in.

Corey suspects the Panther will be hunting him as he hunts the Panther, as Corey is on al Qaeda’s hit list for his earlier take down of the Lion.

But his wife sees the Yemen posting as a career move and an adventure, and she eagerly accepts the assignment. Despite his misgivings, Corey agrees to travel to Yemen with his wife.

Prior to leaving for Yemen, Corey and Mayfield are briefed by Buckminster Harris, a 60-ish, patrician State Department official, who explains Yemen’s contentious history.

Yemen is a land of mistrust, which in a way removes any ambiguity,” Harris tells Corey and Mayfield. “Trust no one and you won’t be betrayed or misled. If a government official is assigned to assist you, he is not there to assist you. All informants lie, even the ones you pay. If an ordinary man begs you to get him a work visa to the States in exchange for information, he is working for the government or al Qaeda, and he just wants to get close to you and obtain your trust. Why? You’ll find out the hard way. Any questions?”

When they land in Yemen, they are met at the airport and harassed by Col. Hakim of the Political Security Organization, the Yemeni secret police. Corey cracks wise, as it is his nature. Hakim is furious. It is the beginning of a not-so-beautiful friendship throughout the novel.

The Coreys are rescued from Col. Hakim by Paul Brenner, a State Department Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) special agent. On the drive to the embassy in an armed convoy, Brenner introduces himself as a fellow member of the small team hunting the Panther.

Brenner, the protagonist of two of DeMille’s earlier thrillers, “The General’s Daughter” and “Up Country,” is a sarcastic wit very much like Corey. Mr. DeMille characterizes the two characters as “Irish alpha males.”

I enjoyed “The Panther,” despite Mr. DeMille’s unflattering portrayal of CIA officers. In my view, CIA officers are among the good guys fighting the war on terrorism.

Despite the length of the novel, “The Panther” is a fast-paced thriller, and Mr. DeMille offers a good number of gritty action scenes along with the snappy dialogue.

Nelson DeMille, 69, a former infantry officer who served in Vietnam, also infuses the thriller with a good bit of information about the state of terrorism today.

• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at [email protected]

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