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The Silent Man
By Alex Berenson
Putnam Adult
HC, 432 pgs. US$25.95
ISBN: 0-3991-5538-4

America's worst nightmare made real

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 9, 2009

The Silent ManThe spy genre of literature has much to thank continued instability in Russia and Islamic terrorism for. Thanks to those occasionally dovetailing stories, writers have had a field day in presenting new challenges to their mythical super spies, ones involving troubled states, a desire by terrorist groups for revenge against the United States for crimes real or imagined and plots that are scarily plausible. Thanks to September 11, 2001, there are no more such things as outlandish plots. Everything is realistic.

Alex Berenson's third John Wells spy story, The Silent Man, is one of those scarily plausible examples of fiction that could happen in real life. CIA agent Wells has had a busy few years with his work in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an attack on American soil and stopping a potential war with China. Settled down to a semi-retirement in the Washington, D.C. area with his fiancée Jennifer Exley, Wells hopes for nothing more than peace and a chance to live the semblance of a normal life.

Unfortunately Wells has made some powerful enemies on the way to becoming a hero. An arms dealer whose schemes Wells has previously foiled launches an audacious attack on he and Exley just blocks from the White House. His partner grievously wounded, Wells launches a one man war against his old enemy, becoming the prototypical loose cannon that the CIA only ever seems to home to in fictional stories. Soon, however, he learns that there are dangers even greater.

While Wells is caught up with revenge, Islamic terrorists manage to engineer a theft thought by most to be impossible in the real world: the theft of two nuclear warheads from a Russian refueling and storage facility in the heart of the country. Their plan is simple: Given that the warheads are locked by an unbreakable code known only to the highest echelons of the Russian military, the terrorists will smuggle the warheads to the United States, deconstruct them and build their own nuclear weapon. They will then either explode their bomb in Washington, D.C. during the State of the Union Address or other secondary but vital targets.

Wells is then forced at least temporarily to halt his quest and work with elements both inside and outside of the American intelligence community that he seems to largely abhor, mostly because few seem to share his sense of what justice in the world is. What begins is a race to discover who the perpetrators are, how they smuggled their nuclear warheads to the United States and where the terrorists are holed up. Given that a previous Berenson novel featured an attack on the United States, the eventual outcome of The Silent Man is hardly a foregone conclusion.

A reader could be forgiven in wondering how likely a theft of a nuclear warhead really is, and more importantly if it could be utilized in an attack given the safeguards that are in place. There have been rumours for years of missing Russian nuclear weapons, including the 1997 claim by former Russian National Security Advisor Alexander Lebed that more than one hundred suitcase nuclear weapons were missing, though there are questions whether the Soviet Union ever even developed the technology or they were already deployed to potential targets. And given that the construction of a nuclear weapon – assuming sufficient weapons grade material is available – is within the technological capabilities even many universities, it is six decade old technology after all, perhaps the fiction is closer to reality than we think.

His hero, John Wells, is yet another of those Jason Bourne-esque killers expert in every conceivable spy craft, but he's also very human and occasionally runs against the grain of what we expect from a fictional spy. And while he seems capable of handling every situation, we can also see that the effort is beginning to wear him down. The plausibility of its narrative is all too real and allowed Berenson to craft an engaging story. The Silent Man is a hugely entertaining effort and far too chillingly realistic. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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