They say the plots of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order TV shows are often ripped from the headlines. But for a few awful weeks in 2001, the headlines seemed to be ripped from one of his shows. A Wolf miniseries on Islamic terrorism that included a bombing in New York City that killed thousands followed by anthrax attacks was just days from shooting when the airliners hit the Twin Towers.
“It was just unbelievable,” Wolf recalls. “Variety had a story about the show on the morning of Sept. 11 with the headline ‘TERROR’ TACTICS AT NBC. And we had sent a scouting crew out that morning. They had a choice of two locations — the World Trade Center or Randall’s Island in the East River. They went to Randall’s Island, and they could see the planes fly into the towers from there.”
The miniseries, of course, was canceled. But the idea of doing something on terrorism stayed with Wolf. And last month it finally came to fruition when he published his first novel, The Intercept, about a New York City cop frantically trying to convince his superiors that another terrorist attack is on the way.
Wolf, who will make two appearances in South Florida this week to promote the book, admits it’s slightly counterintuitive that one of television’s most successful producers — the original Law & Order lasted 20 seasons, tying it with Gunsmoke as the longest-running entertainment series in TV history — would turn to a novel to tell a story. But he says he had no choice.
“The Law & Order shows are the greatest bully pulpit ever invented, and we did some episodes about terrorists,” Wolf says. “But nothing like the scope of the book. Terrorism is just too big a story to be told in one hour. You need a broader canvas. I would have loved to see this made as a miniseries; that would be the ideal way to do it, with four to six hours. But nobody is making miniseries anymore. So I thought I would try a novel.”
The Intercept is not a reiteration of Wolf’s abortive 2001 miniseries, which began with a bloody bombing in Times Square and then focused on the investigative aftermath. Instead, it’s a can-they-stop-him thriller in the manner of Day of the Jackal. It moves on twin tracks, following an Islamic fundamentalist plotting an attack in America and the cop who is trying to prevent it.
But there is, perhaps, some linkage between the two projects. The Intercept’s terrorism-obsessed cop hero, Jeremy Fisk, has echoes of John O’Neill, the former FBI agent who was the technical advisor on the old miniseries. O’Neill’s investigation of the original 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center turned him into a sort of Cassandra of terrorism, constantly (and, in the perception of his critics, shrilly) warning that Osama bin Laden would strike inside the United States.
Pushed out of the FBI by irate superiors, O’Neill went to work as the head of security at the World Trade Center 19 days before the airliners crashed into it. His body was found in the ruins.
“O’Neill was extraordinarily forthcoming,” Wolf says. “Not in the sense of giving us classified stuff — he didn’t do that. But the reason the miniseries seemed to anticipate what happened on Sept. 11 was that O’Neill gave us a clear vision in the counterterrorism zeitgeist. All the experts knew something was coming, but nobody knew what or when or where.”
It could well be that, someday, The Intercept will also seem to have been eerily prophetic. It starts with a crude, ill-planned attempt at hijacking an airliner. But that’s only a diversion to distract authorities from a much more sophisticated and deadly plot. Wolf says the premise is not fanciful but firmly rooted in the real world.
“Since 9/11, the people al-Qaida has sent in have not exactly been the sharpest knives in the drawer,” he says. “The shoe bomber, the underwear bomber — they just aren’t very impressive. But on 9/11, [chief hijacker Mohamed] Atta and those people, they had a much higher level of sophistication and intelligence. You keep wondering when we’ll see that again. That’s part of the thinking in the book, to use an initial red herring, a hijacking by somebody who seems too stupid to have thought of it.”
Many screenwriters can’t make the transition to novelists (and vice-versa), but Wolf didn’t find it that difficult. “I don’t think the two forms are that dissimilar,” he says. “My 25-year-old read The Intercept. ‘It reads an awful lot like a script,’ he told me when he was finished. ‘Well, thank you,’ I said. I can’t really say he’s incorrect.
“The nice thing about novels is that when you write a screenplay, the only thing the audience knows is what they see or hear. You can’t really do an internal monologue and tell what somebody is thinking. In that sense, a novel is like a beefed-up screenplay.”
Cervantes or Faulkner, Wolf concedes, might see it differently. “I started out in advertising, so I can say basically anything in 30 seconds,” he says. “I don’t consider The Intercept great literature. I think it’s a pretty good thriller. I think that, in a strange way, the difference between a thriller and a literary novel is probably greater than the difference between a thriller novel and a thriller screenplay.”
Wolf was comfortable enough with the form that he’s already gotten a deal for two more books featuring Detective Fisk. “I’m well into the second one, and I know what the third one is,” he says. “But this is not unexplored territory for me. If you get a really good character, you just keep putting him out there. We did it 456 times on Law & Order. So a series of thrillers comes quite naturally to me.”