"Twelve Days" (Putnam), by Alex Berenson.
From a shoulder-fired rocket aimed at a passenger jet that alights its opening pages "Twelve Days," is the sort of spy thriller that locks you in a fast and ferocious grip and won't let you go.
There are four continents of antics: Drone strikes, bomb blasts and terrorist attacks. Russian arms dealers, tete-a-tetes with Saudi Royals and, on occasion, uncomfortably precise combat methods for slowing a chasing enemy down. There are big bad guys and plot twists aplenty.
Basically, all we've come to expect and more from our protagonist, the now-former CIA operative John Wells.
Author Alex Berenson has pushed the brooding, occasionally super-human Wells through a series of adventures and misadventures in nine books now. "Twelve Days" is essentially a continuation of the plot from its immediate predecessor, "The Counterfeit Agent." It's not completely necessary to read the previous book to enjoy this one, but it will ramp up tension that is already well stoked and won't hurt.
Never a care-free sort, Wells is as under the gun as ever here: The fictional president has decided that Iran has a bomb and has ordered strikes against the country. He's given the country's leadership the eponymous 12 days to come clean. If they don't, he's promised the full wrath of the U.S. military. Iran has responded by unleashing Hezbollah militias and ramping up its own rhetoric.
Except, Iran is bluffing. As only Wells and his two sidekicks — the former CIA Director and now U.S. Sen. Vinny Dutto; and the toiling CIA analyst Ellis Schafer — know, Iran doesn't really have the bomb. It's the victim of a false flag operation run by a U.S. gambling magnate who wants the country drawn into war. His chief operative, a woman who goes by Salome, is a worth adversary and foil to Wells' battered good-guy.
To recap what unfolds over the next fortnight or so would be to do a disservice to the reader. Suffice to say, Wells never stops and neither does the plot.
Where Berenson rises above the thriller pile is in two ways: First, he twists the plot better than the rest. Everything, save perhaps a side trip to Saudi Arabia, feels totally plausible. (And even that diversion is quite entertaining.)
The other way is Berenson's characters. There are some stock figures but he tries hard and largely succeeds at fully rendering even smaller characters. This succeeds particularly well with Dutto, a character who in previous novels was more of plot facilitator. Here, we learn more about who he is on a personal level and how he operates. But lesser characters get strong treatment, too. A traveler spends a page or so worrying about his Mom. An Israeli spy master is mastering black humor in the face of life-ending cancer, and so on.
The result is a fast-paced, enthralling fight to the finish. Another successful literary mission for John Wells.