The Bottom Line: A taut terrorism thriller that mesmerizes with a dizzying global conspiracy and believable stakes. Fans of Kyle Mills and Brad Thor will love The Handler.
The Handler opens in New York City as two radicalized Muslims, Mustafa Karahan and Roshan Al Ghamdi, conduct recon for a terror attack. It’s a familiar setup with one terrifying twist: neither knows about the other’s existence, seemingly giving the mission a far greater chance of success.
As it does throughout, The Handler quickly shifts continents. In Shanghai, CIA operative Nick Reagan picks up a British woman who says she’s in the Diplomatic Corps. He doesn’t buy her cover story for even a moment. Nevertheless, both are happy to go back to his hotel to “make memories.” Before the night is over, however, Chinese authorities show up to take Reagan away for interrogation.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, three American scientists arrive to investigate the cause of a catastrophic earthquake. Sold out by a local emir, they’re soon abducted by armed men.
Got all that? Through these and many other events in locations across the planet, Author Jeffrey S. Stephens has created a vast global conspiracy that readers will enjoy unraveling until the climactic finale.
In ways, The Handler is reminiscent of the post-9/11 wave of terrorism fiction that ruled the bestseller lists in the early 2000s. Stephens covers new territory by focusing considerable portions of the story to events in Dearborn, Michigan, the “de facto center of Sharia law within the United States.” While Stephens provides an honest assessment of reality vs fiction in a thoughtful Acknowledgements chapter at the end of the book, it’s worth noting that his depiction of Dearborn is palpable, plausible and thought-provoking.
Stylistically, Stephens employs economical, action-focused prose and almost never slows down for exposition. Characters are given just enough backstory to provide context. Stephens prefers instead to demonstrate their character, values and capabilities through action and dialogue, and that’s especially true of fellow agent Carol Gellos. The result is a hard-hitting, fast-paced story that works well despite a truly large cast of characters.