No good deed goes unpunished.
In Nelson DeMille’s last thriller, John Corey, former NYPD homicide detective and now an agent with the Federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force, kills Asad Khalil, a.k.a. The Lion. Corey and his wife, FBI Agent Kate Mayfield, now find themselves in the crosshairs of another terrorist, Bulus ibn al-Darwish, Al-Numair, The Panther, out to avenge his mentor’s death. Al-Numair, who was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey and educated at Columbia, was one of three masterminds behind the 2001 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole that was anchored off the coast of Yemen when it was attacked. (The real terrorists behind the Cole bombing have been caught, but DeMille is adept at weaving real life scenarios into his novels, including the radicalization of American-born men of Middle Eastern heritage.)
Tom Walsh, head of the terrorist task force, asks Corey and Mayfield to travel to Yemen ostensibly to continue the Cole investigation. Corey quickly sees through the smokescreen: he and Kate are being sent to Yemen to flush out the Panther. “Call me red meat,” Corey jokes.
DeMille manages to do the seemingly impossible, crafting a thriller with very funny moments. John Corey has a wry, one might say cynical, sense of humor. His one-liners, delivered with expert timing, break up the tension and keep the pages turning. “I have a theory about immigration. Wherever you were born, stay there.” Corey may seem like the class clown, but his standup act achieves its purpose: enemies, foreign and home-grown, tend to underestimate his abilities.
Corey is smarter than the average terrorist and certainly smarter than most of the U.S. operatives he’s forced to trust. Short story: he doesn’t trust anyone even, at times, his wife, Kate’s judgment. She signs on for the mission knowing that he won’t let her go alone. Corey already did one round in Yemen investigating the Cole bombing and is not eager to go back. “I was actually there for a month in 2001. The beaches are topless. You get your head blown off.” Yet, ever the patriot, he admits: “When it’s only about you, you do what’s best for you. But when it’s about something bigger than you, you do what’s right, not what’s best.”
After agreeing to the assignment, John and Kate meet with Buckminster Harris, a 60-something career spy who doesn’t pull any punches about what they will face in Yemen. “Yeminis have become used to war, which has led to a sort of national psychosis, and which is why Yemen is an armed camp.” Western influence briefly pulled Yemen into the 20th century, but numerous civil wars, a deeply entrenched tribal system, and al Qaeda violence have plunged the country back into dark times. Yemen’s cultural environment is just as unforgiving as its desert. Historical sites, although still attracting brave and, one might say, foolish tourists, are slowly being destroyed by al Qaeda as pagan affronts to Islam. Women must wear the native balto, covering themselves head to toe and are not allowed to dine with men. The country’s main agricultural product is khat, a leaf that is chewed for a narcotic-like effect. Roads are not safe, the police are corrupt, and al Qaeda attacks target Europeans and Americans, destroying what little tourism the country has left.
In The Lion, Corey and Kate thwarted a plot by a rogue CIA operative. Since the Panther hunt is being run by a CIA agent, Corey believes that he and Kate are on more than one kill list. So while he allows himself to be dangled as bait, he continues to stay on guard, never fully trusting the other members of the team.
DeMille does his research without bogging down his narrative with too many technical details. We learn enough to know what Corey, Kate, and the others are up against. Drones play such an important role in keeping the mission safe that these unmanned planes almost seem like extra characters. And the story challenges our sensibilities about what the U.S. pays in terms of life and integrity to fight this war on terror. Corey, however, will survive to fight another day (although we wonder how many cats DeMille can conjure up) without losing his sense of humor.