Title: The Silent Man
Author: Alex Berenson
Berenson, Alex (2009). The Silent Man. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
PS3602.E75146 S55 2009
Date Posted: November 30, 2016
Reviewed by Richard Lourie
A novel can, and should, do many things, but a thriller need do only one. If it thrills, it succeeds, and if it does not, no matter how well it does everything else, it fails. Alex Berenson’s third novel, The Silent Man, succeeds in seizing the attention from the start and never letting go until the end.
Like most thrillers, The Silent Man is more concerned with how and where than who or why. The tale involves the theft of Russian nuclear warheads to be detonated in Washington during the State of the Union address, in an effort to wipe out the government and possibly draw the United States into war with Medvedev’s Russia.
Berenson, a New York Times reporter, deftly describes the weapons heist, detailing with enjoyable precision the Russian security system and the ingenuity with which it is circumvented. His explanation of how the warheads will work has the feel of real science, simultaneously fascinating and mind-numbing.
As we know from James Bond and Jack Bauer—that icon of the Cheney era—a thriller hero can be over the top, but he can never be silly without endangering the story’s spell. Berenson’s hero, John Wells, isn’t quite silly, but he sometimes comes across as a media cliché instead of a character lifted from life or invented from whole cloth. As readers of Berenson’s earlier thrillers will remember, Wells spent nearly a decade infiltrating Al Qaeda, even converting to Islam; then, with the help of his C.I.A. colleague (and fiancée) Jennifer Exley, he stopped a Qaeda attack on New York. “More recently he and Exley had helped avert war between the United States and China,” Berenson writes in a bit of exposition that sounds like a “Previously on ‘24’ . . .” voice-over. “The missions had saved untold lives.”
Of course, Wells is seen by the C.I.A. director as “arrogant, untouchable, a loose cannon.” A loner and a rogue, he has the requisite cool scar but is “never more endearing” than when he’s “acting like a big kid.” He has responsibility issues with Exley, whose name leads to such unfortunate phrases as “Exley’s ex-husband.” The comic book quality of all this is emphasized by Berenson’s use of sound effects: “The pistol jerked twice in succession, crack-crack.”
The baddies here are mostly Middle Eastern, and their leader, Yusuf (whose “fingers were as weightless as the devil’s”), has a touch of true evil about him. They are all motivated by a thirst to avenge various injustices perpetrated on their loved ones. One villain harbors doubts, however, creating a nice secondary level of suspense—will he betray his colleagues or himself?
One of the pleasures of thrillers is that they often take you to distant locales. Occasionally, Berenson evokes a sense of place quite well, as in this description of the Moscow Metro: “The subway cars were Soviet-era, made of blue corrugated steel with big windows, and they emerged from the tunnels with a pressurized whoosh as if they were powered by air and not electricity.” Too often, though, his descriptions are bland and featureless: “The city hall was a reminder of Hamburg’s prosperity, a broad building with a clock tower at its center.” And sometimes they shade into the unintentionally hilarious—the Black Sea is “a famously dank waterway”?
Yet none of these drawbacks do much to slow the locomotive of the plot, which keeps hurtling along until Wells brings it to a neat and violent end. At his best, Berenson puts the genre through its paces; at his worst, he’s just generic.
 Richard Lourie, “Threat Level Red,” in the New York Times (Feb 6, 2009). Downloaded November 30, 2016). Richard Lourie’s most recent novel, A Hatred for Tulips, has been issued in paperback as Joop: A Novel of Anne Frank. A version of this review appears in print on page BR19 of the New York Times Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Threat Level Red”.