(Reviewer’s Note: The recent terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris and then this week’s report of the death of the prosecutor in a still-active case involving the fatal 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires are reasons enough to read “The Convert’s Song.” Another reason is that the writing is superb.)

“The Convert’s Song” by Sebastian Rotella

Mulholland Books/Little, Brown

Review by David Steinberg

No action heroes in this thriller. Action? Plenty of it. Tense, secretive border crossings? You bet. Brushes with violent death? That, too.

But Sebastian Rotella’s novel is also packed with questions, not all of them immediately answered. Which is a good thing. It heightens the suspense in a rarely seen thriller that’s built on lucid, urgent prose.

The novel’s fundamental question is, Who is Raymond/Ramon Mercer? Is he a terrorist running his own cell? Is he a pawn? Is he a spy? Is he a money-hungry drug kingpin? All of the above? This much is known. Mercer is an American-born convert to Islam who’s started a family.

He seems to know about who is responsible for a terrorist attack that killed hundreds in Buenos Aires. Hunting for Mercer is Valentine Pescatore, Mercer’s best friend from childhood in Chicago. Pescatore intends to find out the truth about his old buddy. No easy task. Mercer tells lies and half-truths but he also wants to keep Pescatore safe.

Pescatore is a former U.S. Border Patrol agent now working as a consultant for a businessman in the Argentine capital. Pescatore’s search for the attackers leads him to sniff for Mercer in Bolivia, in France, in Iraq. In the hunt, Pescatore teams up with a female French-Moroccan intelligence agent.

The author gives you a seat at the table when the hunters are trying to figure out their next move or when they’re speculating about Mercer’s motives.

Here’s one slice. This is Pescatore talking: “Sounds like Raymond was a player. He got documents, got the bombers into the country. Had to be involved in the Bolivian cell too. Why would he do all of that, then turn around and blow the whistle at the last minute? I know he likes to play both sides, but does that make sense?”

Give it to Rotella. He knows how bring the reader on the inside of slippery international  security issues and he knows how to keep pushing the story.

What is the “song” in the book’s title? It carries a double meaning. Song as in the lyrics telling a story. And song because Raymond Mercer sometimes surfaces as a singer in nightclubs.

My next move is read Rotella’s first crime novel, “Triple Crossing.”

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