Warner, 2006, 519 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-57967-4
I used to believe that Nelson DeMille couldn’t do wrong, that even when he padded a wildly implausible story with hundreds of useless pages, there was always something to rescue the wreckage and send it soaring about the norm. Night Flight was the novel that disabused me of the notion, and now Wild Fire is the one that confirms that DeMille is a fallible writer after all.
What’s dispiriting is that Wild Fire repeats a good chunk of Night Flight‘s mistakes, and indulges in a few more along the way. It’s almost as if DeMille was at a point where he didn’t have to care anymore. As a thriller, it’s botched from the get-go; as a sequel, it’s well within diminishing-returns territory; as a reflection of the zeitgeist, it’s ridiculously paranoid.
But let’s start with the essentials: Wild Fire is John Corey’s fourth adventure, after Plum Island, The Lion’s Game and Night Flight. Like its predecessor, it’s voluntarily set in the recent past, taking place in September 2002, which is to say a year after the events of Night Flight and sometimes between 9/11 and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The historical setting is part of the conceptual problems that plague Wild Fire like they plagued Night Fall. We know how, in large strokes, the story is going to end. Given how DeMille spends his first 120 pages explaining a plan to nuke two American cities, this becomes a bigger problem than in Night Fall. We knew that Night Fall was going to run into 9/11. This time, we know it’s not going to run into a nuclear apocalypse. This transforms the novel from a suspense thriller to a procedural one, as Corey uses his skills to discover and defuse the conspiracy.
That’s not necessarily a fatal problem: DeMille has certainly managed to produce strong novels from weaker premises. But the alpha-male charm of DeMille’s usual heroes, often the single best things about his stories, here seems to run on empty. Corey’s narration often plays up his loutish humor at the expense of his real skills as an investigator, but Wild Fire overindulges in the regard and Corey seems more like a caricature than ever before, a smart guy playing a shtick to the benefit of the peanut gallery.
It doesn’t help that DeMille seems bored with the proceedings, throwing bones to his audience more out of expectations than organic plotting. When a much-hated recurring characters makes a brief appearance before being taken out again, it feels like a wink and a shrug rather than the culmination of a long enmity. The macho banter between Corey and just about every other character (flirtatious with the women, aggressive with the men) feels tired and ready to be taken out.
Maybe it’s a sign that both Corey and DeMille still feel shell-shocked by 9/11. Corey can’t shut up about it, while DeMille indulges into paranoid plotting in which the American conspirators plan the deaths of millions of Americans with a sense of dutiful glee. The title of the novel itself refers to a doctrine (secret to us, but apparently known to all terrorist sponsors) in which terrorist nuclear attacks on American cities will result in the retaliatory glassification of most of the Islamic world. In some ways, Wild Fire accurately reflects the Bush-era paranoia of an American population feeling stuck between bloodthirsty terrorist and an uncaring government. But in others, the idea of a government-led conspiracy to kill Americans is fast becoming a cliché as thriller writers try to re-fight the last 9/11: Wild Fire may have been one of the first novel to touch upon that notion, but since then there have been quite a few more, including Steve Alten’s even more paranoid The Shell Game. It’s time to move on.
And by “move on”, that includes the notion that DeMille may be better off writing original novels again. For an author who, from 1978 to 1997 wrote ten independent novel, DeMille has turned to the dark side and produced a string of five sequels, up to and including 2008’s The Gate House. Enough is enough; just kill Corey once and for all (yes; I’m at the point when I’m actually cheering for his demise) and go do something else. Because the current 9/11-obsessed, sequel-writing, formula-set DeMille is a shadow of his former self, and it’s exactly the kind of slide into self-absorbed irrelevance that has doomed a number of his thriller-writing contemporaries. He has pulled some improbable writing challenges before, but the biggest one is going to be to save his own career from implosion.