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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Since the publication of his first novel, By the Rivers of Babylon, in 1978, Nelson DeMille has produced a steady stream of intelligent, hard-edged, contemporary thrillers, the best of which — such as Cathedral, The Gold Coast, or Word of Honor — are absolute models of the form. It's a pleasure to be able to report that The Lion's Game, DeMille's tenth novel is as shrewdly constructed and compulsively readable as anything he has published to date.
Weighing in at nearly 700 pages, The Lion's Game is the longest, most ambitious novel of DeMille's career. It is also his first attempt at a sequel, bringing us a new installment in the colorful career of John Corey, the acerbic narrator/hero of 1997's Plum Island. When last seen, Corey had interrupted his convalescent leave from the NYPD long enough to solve a bizarre double murder on Long Island's Eastern Shore, after which, he formally separated from the police department and became an adjunct professor at John Jay University. Not unexpectedly, Corey grew bored with the uneventful world of academia and decided to return, in a very different capacity, to the front lines of law enforcement. Admirers of Plum Island will be pleased to learn that he is as ornery, insubordinate, and politically incorrect as ever.
The novel opens on April 15th. Corey has just signed on with the Middle Eastern division of the ATTF (Anti-Terrorist Task Force), an organization staffed by an uneasy combination of FBI, CIA, and NYPD operatives. Corey's firstassignmenttakes him to JFK Airport, where, together with an assortment of teammates, he is scheduled to take custody of a defecting Libyan terrorist. The terrorist in question is Asad Khalil, a.k.a. the Lion, the man believed to be responsible for a series of attacks on Americans living in Europe. As Corey and company await the arrival of Khalil and his escorts, it quickly becomes apparent that something has gone seriously wrong.
To begin with, the plane, for unknown reasons, drops out of radio contact hours before its arrival in New York. Eventually, ignoring all commands from Air Traffic Control personnel, the flight lands at JFK in an odd, erratic fashion, taxis to a stop, and proceeds to sit, silent and motionless, on the runway. Unable to establish communication, airport authorities force their way onboard, only to find that a tragedy of unprecedented proportions has occurred and that Asad Khalil, the man responsible for that tragedy, is nowhere to be found, having slipped through the crowd of investigators and made his escape.
The bulk of the novel concerns the protracted hunt for an implacable killer with a very personal mission. It would spoil a number of DeMille's expertly constructed effects to reveal too much of what happens as The Lion's Game unfolds. But here, briefly, is the fundamental premise that dominates this book.
April 15th, the day Khalil's plane arrives at JFK, is not simply income tax day. It is also the anniversary of the 1986 bombing of Libya, a mission ordered by Ronald Reagan in direct response to a series of atrocities reputedly set in motion by Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi. Asad Khalil, who was 16-years-old when the bombing occurred, lost his entire family that day and developed an undying hatred for all things American. Acting both on his own behalf and on behalf of the Great Leader Gadhafi, he has made his way to America, where he is determined to wage a holy war against the murderers of his family.
As Khalil's history, intentions, and specific agenda gradually become clear, Corey leads a diverse group of experts in an increasingly desperate attempt to anticipate the Lion's movements and prevent him from implementing his bloody, ironic endgame. As the lengthy narrative unrolls, The Lion's Game moves backward in time from the present day to the night of the fateful bombing in 1986; the action shifts from New York City to Florida and from Florida to the Pacific Coast, as DeMille skillfully switches back and forth from the first-person viewpoint of John Corey to a third-person narrative that takes us into the deranged perspective of Asad Khalil. The result is a big, wide-ranging novel that is alternately funny and frightening; one that achieves an astonishing, almost effortless narrative momentum; one that is grounded in DeMille's tragic view of the endlessly replicated blood feuds that dominate the landscape of 20th-century geopolitics.
From its eerie opening sequence to its deliberately open-ended conclusion, THE LION'S GAME is the clear product of a world-class storyteller, a man who seems incapable of turning out a bland or boring paragraph. DeMille is at the top of his own game in this one and has written a novel that will inevitably command a large, enthusiastic audience. I, for one, am glad to see it. In a field too often populated by formulaic, by-the-numbers fiction, Nelson DeMille is an undisguised blessing. I wish him health, success, and undiminished productivity in the decades to come.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications.