- - Monday, May 25, 2020

His superb 2018 debut thriller, “Warning Light,” found readers and critics proclaiming that in David Ricciardi this genre had a new star. “One of the best thrillers you’ll read this year,” Lee Child called it. 

But in writing novels, as in performing in films and playing sports, stars can fade, sometime quickly, or they may go on to shine brighter. For a novelist, the fade or soar point is likely to appear with the second novel.

“Rogue Strike,” David Ricciardi’s second novel released last year, convinced readers and critics that his highly praised debut novel was no fluke but a preview of more great reads to come. 

“Black Flag, released last week, is another giant step for David Ricciardi. It cements his standing as one of the best writers thriller fans should find especially worth following and shows he is on track to joining the ranks of the giants of the thriller genre.

We first met protagonist Jake Keller in “Warning Light” before he had to change his name from Zachery (Zac) Miller. A 28-year-old geek assigned to the CIA’s London operation under cover of working for a technology consulting company, he was a desk warrior, a highly-skilled analyst but no great warrior skills, no experience or special training in field espionage operations.



But when an earthquake hit near the location of what the CIA believed was the site of Iran’s most secret facility in the ever-increasing nuclear complex of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, possibly moving things around enough to afford viewing of what Iran was hiding, a bold plan for U.S. intelligence to get an up-close look and obtain images was quickly put together. It fell apart when the agent picked turned out to be known to the Iranians.

And that’s how Zac Miller, soon to become Jake Keller, is transformed by David Ricciardi’s clever imagination and great storytelling skill. He convinces his superiors to let him replace the outed agent. Because of the skill he demonstrates prevailing in a cat-and-mouse constant chase pursued by both our Iranian enemy and by his own former CIA colleagues who were duped by clever Iranian disinformation, he goes from being just about the last person any intelligence agency would want to send on a risky top-secret mission of critical importance to U.S. national security into the person you’d pick for the next such crucial mission.

That next critical mission, detailed in “Rogue Strike,” finds Jake Keller, now part of an elite CIA operational team, in Yemen tracking a notorious Islamic terrorist and about to obliterate him and his group by raining down air-to-ground missiles from U.S. drones circling overhead.

But the drones suddenly pivot to another target — to Mecca in neighboring Saudi Arabia where its missiles are unleashed and virtually vaporize a few thousand innocent Muslim pilgrims, creating a horrendous nightmare for America and a dream opportunity for our enemies. It falls to Jake Keller to figure out how it happened and who was responsible and convince a doubting world that it was not the fault of the United States but rather enemies who were trying to thwart U.S. power and influence.

This is something that makes David Ricciardi so interesting — that rather than focusing on the same basic problem subject in one book after another — terrorism, Russian belligerence, etc. — he favors picking a topic that’s receiving less focus from others and then next time an entirely different one on which most others don’t focus.

In “Warning Light,” he gave us a highly entertaining read that reminded us just how scary the Iranian nuclear deal truly is. In “Rogue Strike,” he gave us a highly entertaining read that warned us that the Chinese Communists are a deadly enemy with a long-term plan to weaken and surpass us.

Now with “Black Flag,” David Ricciardi zeroes in on a threat we have come to think has faded away — piracy. 

What if instead of being conducted by unsophisticated small-time thugs using vessels that cannot venture very far out into ocean waters, piracy was performed like a serious military operation: Super-fast vessels, including submarines; the best jamming capabilities; the latest weaponry; all directed and staffed by some of the smartest intelligence and special operations officers lured by assurance of fantastic riches?

Most of the world’s commerce moves by sea and it’s impossible to protect every ship in such a vast area from this new devastatingly effective piracy. The entire world could suffer greatly unless these new pirates are crushed. So this time Jake Keller is in Somalia to track down the warlords and arms merchant behind this threat and put them out of business. 

Once again David Ricciardi will have you turning pages as fast as you can in this imaginative, well-plotted, highly-plausible riveting tale. And then with the ending he’ll hit you with a surprise you never saw coming.

• Fred J. Eckert, President Reagan’s U.S. ambassador to Fiji and to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, is a former Republican congressman from New York.

• • •

BLACK FLAG

By David Ricciardi 

Berkley $27, 384 pages

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