No one doubts Nelson DeMille’s writing chops. After more than twenty novels, he has developed a well-deserved reputation as one of the best action and thriller writers in the business. His books are well-researched, intricately plotted, and filled with a gloriously deadpan sense of humor that almost always leads to a decidedly non-glorious and grounded ending in which the heroes might have won, but usually at a very high personal cost.
His new book, Radiant Angel, is the seventh in his John Corey series, and serves as a perfect reminder that at age 72 DeMille hasn’t lost a step. He uses several techniques to make Radiant Angel, a straightforward story that gradually builds to an intense climax, one of the best thrillers in recent years. The story sees John Corey, as anti-authority and sarcastic as ever, stumbling onto a Russian plot to detonate a nuclear bomb—referred to by the code term Radiant Angel—on a Saudi Prince’s yacht just outside Manhattan, launching a breathless race to stop a second 9/11.
Many modern thrillers move at a frantic pace that sees the story jump around from point of view to point of view, racing through locations and characters and events in an attempt to communicate tension and suspense through sheer intensity and speed. DeMille takes a different, more effective approach: he slows things down. The book is divided into several lengthy sections in which the reader is allowed to spend time with the villains and heroes, getting to know them and following their thinking as they play their deadly game of chess. This patient approach is far more effective at building tension, because the reader only knows as much as the characters do, and restricting us to the perspective of one or the other for long sections of the story restricts our knowledge, making the tension unbearable.
DeMille knows great characters are the key to any story. John Corey will be instantly recognizable and familiar to old fans, but DeMille seeds the book with a group of wonderful supporting characters, giving each an air of engaging mystery. Corey’s “trainee” with the Diplomatic Surveillance Group, Tess, at first appears to be an attractive, smart, but inexperienced FBI aspirant seeking field experience—until it becomes clear she’s much more than that. On the other side of the chess board, the Russian SVR men carrying out the attack are well-shaded, given real motivations and even doubts about what they’re doing. These moments of complexity take time, but pay off because the action means more when the characters feel real.
DeMille has always been renowned for the research he puts into each book, and that shines through in Radiant Angel: every detail feels lived-in and verified. More importantly, the series of events that leads Corey to understand what’s happening, then puts him right in the middle of the effort to stop an unimaginable terrorist attack, are totally believable. DeMille takes the time to make Corey’s trajectory very clear and very logical—there are no magical moments of insight, or “fast-forward” moments employed in lesser thrillers in which logic is sacrificed to maneuver the hero into the right place at the right time. Corey relies on his brilliant detective skills, yes—but DeMille has created a plot that fits together perfectly, making Corey’s discoveries and deductions 100% believable.
One thing DeMille does brilliantly in Radiant Angel is to construct several set-pieces throughout the story that play out like short stories coming together to spin the plot. There’s the initial surveillance and pursuit of a Russian diplomat, initially out of simple duty and curiosity, that becomes a fascinating lesson in spycraft. There’s the infiltration of a lavish party in the Hamptons, with Corey and Tess going undercover to gain information, the tension building when Corey notes that several of the guests are drinking mineral water instead of vodka. And there’s the brutal takeover of the luxurious yacht, with the Russian agents hunting down innocent guests and crew members in order to ensure there are no witnesses. Each of these is thrilling and tense on their own, and tie together seamlessly.
Radiant Angel’s biggest success is its presentation of a chillingly possible scenario that requires no superpowers, no unbelievable geopolitical scenarios, and no science fiction. DeMille has imagined an attack that could be mounted today, precisely as he’s outlined, and that realism elevates the suspense to an almost unbearable level. Luckily, DeMille also imagines a perfectly believable—and effective—response to the threat in the person of John Corey, a flawed, funny hero who doesn’t need Jason Bourne’s reflexes or James Bond’s gadgets to save the world. He just needs his sense of humor, his intelligence—and a gun.