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Killer Thrillers: William Saunderson-Meyer Reviews Crime Novels Based on Historical Events

By William Saunderson-Meyer for The Sunday Times:

Roots of these gripping narratives are in bygone conflicts, writes William Saunderson-Meyer

It is standard fare for thriller writers to take today’s headlines and weave them into the backdrop of their narrative. But today’s news is not a stand-alone event.

As author Mark Oldfield’s professorial character Luisa Ordonez articulates it, “the past constantly seeps into the present . [it] nuances and shapes contemporary choices and options”.

The Sentinel delves into a period that most Spaniards would rather forget: the long darkness of the Franco years, a carnage that did not end with his 1939 victory in the civil war but continued for decades, with his secret police murdering his opponents by the score.

Forensic scientist Ana Galindez has to investigate a newly unearthed mass grave from the fascist era. Such grisly discoveries are not unusual and the expectations of her superiors are that it will be just another file-and-forget job. But Galindez embarks on a quest to find out what happened to the likely perpetrator, Commandante Guzman, once head of General Franco’s notorious Brigada Especial, who mysteriously vanished from history during Madrid’s winter blizzards of 1953.

The Sentinel is research criminologist Oldfield’s debut novel, the first in a trilogy called Vengeance of Memory. It’s a riveting, powerful narrative that flits to and fro between the modern Spain of today and the murderous Spain of the ’50s, transforming and transcending the plod of history.

Daniel Silva’s novel, The Fallen Angel, similarly finds its roots in bygone conflicts and animosities, here stretching back centuries. Retired Israeli secret agent Gabriel Allon, now an art restorer, is persuaded by an old friend, private secretary to the Pope, to quietly investigate the suspicious death of a curator in the Vatican’s antiquities division. Soon he is on the track of an international ring that is looting ancient treasures, to find that organised crime and organised terror are interwoven arms of the same octopus.

The plot moves between Rome and Jerusalem, with its denouement at the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred spots of three great, contesting, religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Here ancient antagonisms threaten to explode in a third intifada between Israel and Palestine.

The historical detail in Silva’s books is meticulously researched and protagonist Allon is an Israeli version of James Bond. But although Allon is handsome and suave, he is also grittier, far more emotionally scarred by the physical violence of his past as a Mossad assassin.

International terrorism is also the backdrop to Nelson DeMille’s latest blockbuster, The Panther, which is set in volatile Yemen – ostensibly a US ally but actually a failed state that is a hotbed of corruption, insurgency and anti-American Islamic militants.

This is the sixth novel featuring John Corey, a former New York detective seconded to the Anti-Terrorism Task Force. Corey is gruff and cynical and has an endless supply of acerbic, politically incorrect one-liners with which to irritate his bosses, and occasionally the reader. Along with his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, he travels to Yemen to hunt down al-Qaeda operative al-Numair, the Panther of the eponymous title, who was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors.

There is a back-story here, relating to Mayfield’s killing of a CIA man, as well as Corey’s history of upsetting the US security establishment’s apple cart.

It transpires that Corey and Mayfield are less the hunters than the bait, and that some in the US’s security establishment intend to leave the couple behind in Yemen as corpses.

Finally, Dick Wolf, creator of the television series Law and Order, makes his literary debut with The Intercept. Like many recent US thriller writers, including DeMille, he draws inspiration from the upheaval of the American world that occurred on 9/11.

The story revolves around an attempted hijacking of a commercial jet. The attempt is foiled by five passengers and a flight attendant, who instantly become celebrities. New York cop Jeremy Fisk, however, suspects that the hijacking was a feint and that the real attack is yet to come, as the clock counts down to the opening of the new Freedom Tower at Ground Zero.

That might sound like standard thriller fare, but where Wolf differs from many is that The Intercept is not populated with cardboard cutouts for characters. Fisk and his subordinate Krina Gersten are masterful creations, and the personal disruption that fame brings to the lives of the newly minted celebrities – “The Six” as they come known – is convincingly rendered.

DeMille is going to have to up his game now that Wolf is in town.

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