An oldie but goodie from a master entertainer

Nelson DeMille is one of my favorite thriller writers, but somehow I never got around to reading his 2000 bestseller, “The Lion’s Game.”

Fortunately, Grand Central Publishing recently put out a new paperback edition of the book, tied in with the release of a hard cover sequel, “The Lion.”

Over the weekend, I picked up the 706-page book and — to borrow a cliche — simply could not put it down.

Or, rather, was annoyed every time I had to put it down to do other things.

“The Lion’s Game” follows a Libyan terrorist who arrives in the United States at the turn of the century to settle a political and personal score: the April 15, 1986, bombing in Libya, ordered by President Reagan, that was meant to take out Moammar Gadhafi in retaliation for the Libyan bombing of a European disco in which two Americans were killed.

Gadhafi escaped unharmed, but one of the colonel’s children was killed, along with many innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders.

DeMille’s fictional villain, Asad Khalil, was 16 at the time of the attack and lost his whole family, so the terrorist’s mission more than a decade later becomes the center of the man’s existence.

The hero of the piece is ex-New York cop John Corey, who has joined a federal anti-terrorist task force and sets off on a Khalil’s trail after the Libyan arrives in New York City in the most unsettling and horrifying way imaginable (on board a commercial 747 on which all of the passengers and crew, except for the terrorist, have been killed by poison gas — Khalil knew the plane had been programmed to land at Kennedy on autopilot).

Although you might think that a terrorist thriller published in 2000 would have been rendered obsolete by the events of 9/11, the book has gained new levels of meaning and tragedy from the agents’ many discussions of the failed attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993.

In a new introduction to the paperback reissue DeMille writes, “many people have called ‘The Lion’s Game’ prescient and even prophetic. And while this is flattering to any writer, I don’t claim to be a bestselling Nostradamus. Bestselling, yes. Nostradamus, no.”

“How then did I apparently predict some of the events of September, 11, 2001, without a crystal ball? The answer is simple: The handwriting was on the wall for all to see. The facts of the first attack (on the WTC)…were obviously well known when I wrote ‘The Lion’s Game,’ and are even mentioned in the book. That attack by Islamic extremists…should have been a wake-up call to America. But we, the American public and the media, did not see this attack as a warning of what was to come.”

“…While I was conducting interviews (for the 2000 novel), I kept hearing about ‘the next attack,’ and here is what I heard almost two years before the actual events of (9/11): The World Trade Center would be targeted, and the attack would be carried out by suicide pilots, flying small private jets loaded with fuel and explosives, which would be flown into the North and South Towers of the Trade Center.”

“By the evening of 9/11, I’d gotten dozens of phone calls and e-mails, many from the media, asking me how I ‘knew’ this was going to happen. Well, I didn’t know, but things that I learned while researching ‘The Lion’s Game’ had obviously worked their way into my mind and into this story.”

“Prescient” or not, “The Lion’s Game” remains a thrilling piece of entertainment a decade after its first appearance.

Joe Meyers