It’s highly unusual for a novel to have a cast of guest stars — usually, readers are simply treated to a host of normal (if fictional) people going about their lives. However, in Dick Wolf’s disappointing debut novel — after writing and producing thousands of hours of the Law & Order franchise — The Inctercept, he does the ultimate bit of stunt casting: He gives Osama Bin Laden, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Matt Lauer and President Obama speaking roles, the author applying the same ripped-from-the-headlines kind of writing that once made Law & Order appointment television.
Except that The Intercept is not a television show, which means that in addition to a few pretty faces, a few high-priced guest stars and few grisly crimes to keep your interest, you need a story built on plausibility executed by round characters. Instead, Wolf delivers the vanilla New York intelligence cop Jeremy Fisk onto the page — a character so bland and so lifeless that he fails to be interestingly heroic or damaged, both hallmarks of Wolf’s TV characters, and instead is just a blunt device of exposition — and into the middle of America’s fight against terror. After foiling a terrorist attack in New York in 2009 — the lead up to which contains the never-fascinating-to-watch inter-departmental pissing matches between the cops, CIA, FBI, FAA, NBA, NFL and PGA — Fisk becomes one of the first boots on the ground after Bin Laden’s death in 2011, helping a crack team of investigators to parse Bin Laden’s trove of paperwork and porn.
The rote implausibility of this cop being involved is a small suspension of disbelief, particularly when compared with Wolf’s comic book portrayal of Bin Laden — characterization in general is an extremely weak point for Wolf, who tends to get to the heart of a character’s very being by telling the reader the person’s precise height, weight and hair color — which makes him sound like a 1970s-era Bond villain: “Bin Laden sat up, seeing clearly as through visited by a bolt of divine inspiration. ‘Instead, we will feint to expose their vulnerability — and then strike deeply and cleanly. Remember, a strike to the ankle is just as fatal as one to the throat. For the giant still falls.’”
Bin Laden won’t live long enough to see this strike to the ankle — and to be clear, a strike to the ankle is not nearly as fatal as a strike to the throat — but with the advance knowledge that we’re about to see a series of feints, the dramatic propulsion of the novel is cleaved immediately. So when a young terrorist attempts to hijack a plane and is swiftly taken down by six “heroes” — enter Mayor Bloomberg, Matt Lauer and President Obama and the Kardashian-like rise to fame for “The Six” — the reader is so many steps ahead of the intrepid Fisk that his fevered chase through the streets of New York City in search of the next prong of the attack becomes little more than stage direction. (A good bit of this would have been: Step over all the red herrings!) Terrorists with terrible trade craft — typically, if you want to appear inconspicuous, don’t kill everyone you meet — are running amok through Manhattan on the week of July 4, and in the shadow of a planned rededication of One World Trade Center, where both President Obama and President Bush are due to appear … and the fate of the world rests in the hands of Fisk. Not exactly a screaming endorsement for the CIA, never mind the drone program.
The plot would be far more palatable if Wolf could have imbued his characters with complex human thought — he writes the book from a narrative distance that suggests this was perhaps a failed pilot, a TV show he couldn’t sell — instead of reams of factual information unrelated to a person. Likewise, if Wolf had attempted to reveal character with dialog versus conveying known information — the number of characters who begin their sentences with some combination of “as you know,” or “as you’ll remember,” is regrettable for a writer of Wolf’s experience — through conflict-free conversations, perhaps Fisk and the novel’s other characters would stop feeling like pieces on an old Stratego board: inexorably moving toward either a bomb or a flag, but not revealing much about themselves.
Only in fiction do we get access to a character’s thoughts, in the process learning how characters make their decisions, learning what makes them love someone, hate someone, kill someone. It’s this chance to understand the process of logic that makes reading a far more visceral experience than watching, and it’s the pivotal step Dick Wolf ignored while writing The Intercept: There’s a mountain of plot here, enough action to sustain a dozen movies, but there’s no person alive in the middle of it all — just names with guns, chasing clichés.
THE INTERCEPT by Dick Wolf. William Morrow, 387 pages