The first novel by the creator of Law & Order feels just like a Law & Order episode. Thank goodness.
Illustration by Nicole Georges.
I think about Law & Order's premature cancellation—the hammer fell two and a half years ago, shortly after the completion of the police drama's 20th season—at least once a day, if not more. These thoughts can be triggered by a particularly twisty crime story coming across my transom, but mostly they're the result of watching old episodes on Netflix. I take particular joy in noting anachronisms—computers that used modems to get on the Internet, phony-subway-token hustlers, gas at $1.50 a gallon. I go back to these episodes often, because I love the way they chronicle New York's evolution from the rough-and-tumble Dinkins era to the smartphone-and-chain-stores Bloomberg years.
Law & Order lives on cable, online, and in the collective memory; even in its post-cancellation purgatory, with its reruns relegated to off-peak time slots by TNT, our collective response to news of a particularly lurid crime is "Can't wait for the L&O episode about this." The way the show's been seared in the collective memory could be in part because of its predictable unpredictability—one of the detectives will get a slightly sour zinger off in the pre-credit scene; the case will always take some sort of twist that upends the viewer's perception of Who Commits Crimes; the district attorney will always push for the case to avoid the trial phase ("make the deal" likely appears in the scripts more than the Miranda warnings); New York will make an uncredited yet crucial cameo, its always-on nature serving as the character that sets off every single one of the show's plots even as the businesses lining its streets change. And so on. Sure, the clunky computers spotlighted in its mid-'90s episodes might seem like battleaxes, but the stories those computers helped tell, about greed and lust and murderous impulses, still play out in the Daily News and the Post in 2013.
Chaos at NBC led to the show being unceremoniously dumped during that network's post-Leno-debacle era, a pawn-shop dénouement for a show that had once been the network's gritty jewel. But L&O creator Dick Wolf has kept busy since: Chicago Fire, which debuted this year, is paired with the L&O franchise's last show standing, the movie-of-the-week surrogate Special Victims Unit, on Wednesday nights. And he’s still writing. The Intercept is his first novel, and the inaugural installment in a series following the workaday adventures of Jeremy Fisk, a member of the NYPD's Intelligence Division of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. With Law & Order's prime-time presence relegated to the soppy, mawkish, heartstring-yanking SVU, The Intercept offers devotees of the show a chance to exist in a universe slightly parallel to the one inhabited by Anita Van Buren, Jack McCoy, and their colleagues without having to feel guilty about being entertained by rape and molestation.
The Intercept kicks off on a transatlantic flight. A cartoonishly inept true believer tries to take down the plane with a knife and loud threats of an explosive device; he gets taken down by a mélange of crew members and passengers, who are quickly dubbed the Six by the media. Once the plane lands, the Six are quarantined in New York for questioning—and to become TMZ-worthy media darlings who have their bravery toasted at the city’s various Independence Day celebrations. As it turns out, the hijacking was only part of a plan to get revenge for the death of Osama Bin Laden—and one of the Six is using his insider status to help turn the Fourth of July into something explosive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Intercept feels like a novelization of the pilot episode of some unproduced Law & Order spinoff; it moves at a quick pace and uses the city as not just a backdrop, but a springboard for the action. (And for character-development purposes: Fisk worked his way up the NYPD's ranks by performing undercover work in one of "those vans that pull up outside a New York deli or convenience store at ten thirty at night, their drivers dollying in racks of soda and candy.") There's tension between the NYPD and interlopers from the Federal level (in this case, the FBI) who want to ignore the city's particular nuances; there are winking details about the city, particularly the media types who seize on the Six as beacons; there's a crackling partnership between Fisk and Kirsten Gersten, his partner in bed if not exactly in crime-fighting (thanks to institutionalized sexism at 1 Police Plaza); there's wise-guy dialogue worthy of the late Jerry Orbach's Lennie Briscoe, who never saw a crime scene he couldn't riff on. ("Aw shit, there goes date night," a florist thinks as a battalion of NYPD vehicles pull up outside his workplace.)
Photo by James Chen.
And then there's the twist, such a hallmark of Law & Order that NBC at one point built the show's entire marketing campaign around it. Two other passengers are, as it turns out, part of the plan set off by the mad non-bomber. Wolf makes the identity of one plain almost immediately. The identity of the second is clearly supposed to surprise, or to at least make people think about where their terrorists come from. But the accomplice's identity is obvious to anyone who's spent a sick day marathoning episodes on Netflix—as the dog-curbing hitman in "Legacy" can tell you, helping out the authorities is not only good civic practice, it's a hell of a way to direct detectives' gazes away from you.
Like Law & Order, The Intercept works as well as it does because of its pacing; it's a fast read with a satisfying arc. It feels, satisfyingly, like good TV: Its supporting cast members are drawn sharply enough to imagine them being inhabited by New York character actors (Wolf only trips up with an ill-considered visit to Osama Bin Laden's Pakistan compound.) That Wolf's hero, a rough-and-tumble veteran of international tours who's as devoted to his job as he is to being a thorn in the side of anyone who might get in his way, has the first name "Jeremy" only heightens the overall vibe; Fisk's character reminded me of Cyrus Lupo, who joined the Law & Order squad in 2008—and who was played by Jeremy Sisto. Maybe he'll play Fisk when this pretend TV series becomes a real TV series.
The Intercept by Dick Wolf. William Morrow.
Maura Johnston is the editor of Maura Magazine and an instructor at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.