The 9/11 novel not set in New York

“The Hidden Assassins” is the 9/11 novel that’s not about 9/11. The bomb blast that takes down a building in a Spanish city is an atrocity is on a smaller scale than the World Trade Center attack, but the aftermath covers the same routes that the survivors travel, and reflects the trauma a nation goes through at the hands of terrorists.

The Hidden Assassins by Robert Wilson

The book doesn’t begin with the blast, but with the discovery of a man’s corpse, sans hands and facial features, in a Seville landfill. The investigating detective, Jefe Javier Falcon, barely gets the investigation rolling when sounds of the explosion roll through the city.

The fictional blast that nearly levels an apartment building recreates on a smaller scale the terrifying impact of Sept. 11: the horrific scenes of attempted rescue, the day-to-day grind of the cleanup operation, the intense news scrutiny of every event and how the politicians and public act and react. And then, realistically and metaphorically, the dust clears, revealing some measure of the truth, while those who were not directly affected by the blast resume our lives, leaving behind those who were irrevocably changed.

But the book is not a direct recreation of 9/11. The presence of a mosque in the basement of the building raises important questions. Was the blast a bomb maker’s error? Or was it revenge? There are several groups in play: intelligence services that may have been investigating the mosque, a political party from the Andalucia region that sees its popularity growing, a major multinational with a mysterious agenda. Anything is possible.

While the explosion doesn’t affect everyone, there are those whose lives fly apart as if it had. Much of the tension in “Assassins” comes from watching them try to hold the center. Who will collapse? Falcon’s ex-wife, who learns of her husband’s affair? The husband whose family was pancaked in the building? Or Falcon’s Arab friend who’s asked to spy for him?

Wilson’s story rarely does what’s expected, keeping us off-balance throughout, and implying that life can be as combustible as a hundred pounds of Semtex. I gave myself only two weeks to read the book, and I wished, at the end, that I had more. It’s that good.

Score: 91

Genre: 14 The way police investigations are handled in Spain, with a judge directing the investigation, may confuse some American readers, and Javier’s squad may seem much more competent than we cynics would expect. But Wilson did a fine job of clearly laying out the investigation and the ethical issues involved in spy work.
Realism: 14 “Assassins” is layered with absorbing details, pared out only when needed: the maneuverings of political parties, how the Spanish media operate, the differences in explosives, how Islamic cells operates, how it feels to travel from civil Seville to a close-knit Moroccan neighborhood.
Character: 15 A rich tapestry of characters, clearly delineated. The only trouble this Angelo encoutered were the assortment of Spanish names.
Setting: 13 One wishes for a better view of Seville, but that may come from reading the earlier books in the series. Wilson captures Spanish life — the late dinners, the different foods and drink, how people live — that conveys the feel of being in another country.
Theme: 14 Wilson raises ethical questions about immigration and terrorism, some of which don’t have answers. These arise naturally from the narrative and don’t feel layered on.
Style: 13 The book can lose you at times when it drops Spanish phrases that’s not recognizable from the context. The cadences in the prose feels like it’s translated from the Spanish.
Bonus: 8 This is a finely constructed novel that can leave you more informed about Islamic terrorism and the fight against it.

What does these numbers mean?

Other links to “The Hidden Assassins”