'Sleeper' plunges into terrorist world

August 29, 2004|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

The Sleeper, by Christopher Dickey. Simon and Schuster. 273 pages. $24.

It was inevitable that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would produce, for better or worse, a literature, and equally inevitable that one of the genres would be the thriller. Fortunately for readers, Christopher Dickey has produced in The Sleeper one that is both sophisticated and compelling.

The towers of the World Trade Center are coming down as the novel opens. Kurt Kurtovic, an American of Balkan descent living peaceably in Kansas with his wife and small daughter, is compelled to action.

He has a history as a Muslim terrorist (told in Dickey's previous novel, Innocent Blood) that he prefers not to think about, and he has a dangerous secret.

The things he knows, and the things that are known about him, propel his return to the network of international terrorism, first in London, then in a shop for Middle Eastern foods and spices in Granada, and on to a refugee camp in East Africa. The consequences come back to Kansas.

Along the way we encounter striking, spare sentences -- "Faridoon came back the morning the mosque began to melt" -- and episodes of extreme violence, equally tautly told.

Kurtovic is, in a particular way, a sleeper, an agent awakened into action by an event that triggers his particular skills -- sought both by his former terrorist associates and by American intelligence agencies.

He is also on the hunt for another sleeper, this one preparing to launch another of al-Qaida's attacks on the United States.

So in Britain, Spain, East Africa and the United States, he is pursuer and pursued, haunted the whole time by the danger that his past has brought home to his family.

Dickey, a Newsweek reporter and editor, has the background to draw a convincing picture of the network of international terrorism, colorful detail in the novel's locales, and the crosscurrents of rivalry among the intelligence agencies.

He also has the heritage, as son of the poet James Dickey, to produce vivid language.

This is a quick-moving novel, exciting and disturbing.

It would be a shame to disclose the twists of the plot, but it would also be irresponsible not to warn the reader that, satisfactory as this thriller is almost to the very last, the ending is marred by a forced and unduly sentimental concluding scene.

That is a minor flaw in an otherwise skillfully constructed page-turner.

John McIntyre is The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk.

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