Thursday, January 3, 2013

Interception

With The Intercept, Dick Wolf joins the ranks of the hit TV-producers turned novelists. It's actually a pretty small club, with only Stephen J. Cannell and Steven Bochco having met the membership requirements in recent years.

And Wolf may be the only active member -- Cannell, creator of The Rockford Files and The A-Team, among others, passed away in 2010 and Bochco, who brought Hill Street Blues, L. A. Law and NYPD Blue to the screen seems to have been a one-and-done novelist. Wolf, of course, is the creator of the Law & Order franchise of shows, the first of which began in 1990 and which is still represented on air by Law & Order: SVU.

In The Intercept, Wolf sticks with the agency that brought him fame and fortune. Jeremy Fisk is an NYPD detective assigned to the department's Intelligence Division. It's an anti-terror unit modeled on the CIA that's designed to ferret out and stop terror attacks directed at the United States' largest target, New York City. A would-be bomber aboard an international flight is thwarted by some passengers on the eve of the dedication of the new Freedom Tower on the site of the old World Trade Center twin towers. They are celebrities and their successful defense is seen as a good omen for the ceremonies, held over the 4th of July holiday.

But Fisk is uncertain -- another passenger on the plane, from Saudi Arabia, has disappeared and reports of him pop up at troublesome places. Was there another plot behind the hijacking attempt? What is actually going on?

Wolf knows how to pace a story; his career in episodic television means The Intercept never bogs down or meanders but heads straight from start to the finish. He also has a great sense of location as he describes action in Manhattan. As the detectives and others move from place to place it doesn't feel as though the writer is using a travel map of the city to tell us where they are.

On the other hand, none of the characters in The Intercept has much depth to them, and there are quite a few places where Wolf the novelist is apparently expecting Wolf the TV producer to hire actors to show what's going on. Regular watchers of the original Law & Order got used to expecting the L&O twist, where everything that had been leading detectives and viewers in a certain direction was suddenly turned on its head and moved us along a completely different path. Wolf sticks one of those just before his final act, leaving him with nowhere near enough space to flesh out the new direction and give it the weight of the previous storyline. The storyline itself is shot full of holes -- the only way Fisk learns who the actual villain of the piece is comes from a sort of diabolos ex machina, a completely random and nonsense choice by that character to do something that is guaranteed to make sure police will know who he is. Throw in a senseless late-story murder that screams, "I'm a significant event created only in order to provide a sense of pathos and tragedy!" and you have an unpromising debut.

In the end, The Intercept plays out like one of the later-season episodes of Law & Order, when the show labored under the weight of its own clich├ęs and Wolf's own tendency to use it to preach whatever cause he might be supporting at the time. Whatever flashes of suspense, fun and good storytelling it manages to show are never brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and the reader who finishes isn't rewarded for loyalty but is instead the target of a blown raspberry and a "Nyah, nyah nyah." Wolf says he is working on the next Fisk novel; here's hoping we get one of those patented L&O twists and it turns out to be a lot better than what came before.

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