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Reviewed by Fiona Ingram for Readers' Favorite
A murder, a suspect, a nuclear plant with a spent fuel reactor that no one wants to discuss, potassium, a terrorist plot and two stolen truckloads of fertilizer, plus a couple of Mongolian goons, makes for a thrilling race-against-time plot in this novel, The 19th Element. The man to tie up the loose ends and resolve the case is none other than James "Beck" Becker, a former elite U.S. government intelligence operative who has retired to his childhood hometown of Red Wing, Minnesota, just six miles down the Mississippi from the Prairie River nuclear facility.
When the body of a University professor of agronomy turns up on the Mississippi River bank, Beck suspects foul play of a terrorist kind. His instinct tells him there is a connection among the victim and his missing lab assistant, Farris Ahmed, an international cell phone call and a stolen fertilizer truck, but no one believes him. After all, who could take seriously his suspicions of a potassium bomb attack on a nuclear plant facility? The local police, the FBI and the nuclear plant security scoff at his ideas until things start rolling, and it looks as if there is only one way things will end...in disaster. In fact, Beck is not wrong. Al Qaeda plans to attack Minnesota's Prairie River Power Plant as a means to restore the organization's fading reputation to international prominence. It is indeed a motley crew that Beck finds himself up against: Al Qaeda (who has struggled to get Arab operatives into the nuclear facility and has resorted to using two dimwitted homegrown anarchists) and a Three Mile Island survivor with a pathological vendetta against the nuclear establishment.
The author has established a likeable character in James Becker, one who has appeared in a previous novel and will no doubt feature in future political thrillers. By handling much of the narration, Beck's character imbues the novel with his own style and personality. Beck is laid-back, with a dry sense of humor and an unerring instinct for danger. He trusts his gut and so do his friends, namely Ottawa County's Chief Deputy Sheriff, Doug Gunderson, aka "Gunner" and Terry Red Feather, a full-blooded Mdewakanton Dakota American Indian, aka "Bull." This book is an excellent read, with the author managing to steer the untutored reader through a maze of technical details about nuclear power and potassium bombs without losing attention. My one criticism would be that the story slows down in the middle with the author "telling" rather than "showing" but speeds up to a satisfying and thrilling climax. An interesting snippet is the fact that potassium is the chemical element with the symbol K (Neo-Latin kalium) and atomic number 19, hence the title of this book.