Before Thomas Harris, a respected reporter for the Associated Press and ace novelist, created the creepy-yet-charismatic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in his novels Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal, he had already dabbled in another and even more frightening topic: a massive terrorist attack against a “soft” (undefended, usually civilian) target in his 1975 debut novel, Black Sunday.
Like The Sum of All Fears, a Tom Clancy “Jack Ryan Novel” that was clearly inspired by Harris’ tautly written thriller, Black Sunday’s plot focuses on a plan by Palestinian terrorists to commit a deadly and spectacular attack on a highly televised event: the Super Bowl.
The reason for the attack – at least from the Palestinian side – is a common thread that runs through both novels: America’s unswerving support for Israel in the apparently never-ending Middle East conflict.
And just as Clancy – possibly taking his cues from this novel – would later do in Sum, Harris not only has a dedicated group of terrorists to carry out this diabolical plan, he has a psychotic American co-conspirator on board, a man whose recent life has pushed him over the edge from understandable resentment to psychotic lust for revenge against his own country.
There, however, the similarities end, for whereas Clancy’s obviously insane Marvin Russell was a murderous Native American of the Lakota tribe and was considered both untrustworthy and expendable by his Arab “allies” and was used as a mere conduit into the Denver area until the homemade nuclear bomb was in place in that Colorado city, Black Sunday’s Michael Lander is a willing planner and executioner of Black September’s spectacular plot to turn a blimp into a makeshift weapon of mass destruction. A Navy veteran with experience on both dirigibles and helicopters, Lander was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and spent six hellish years as a POW until the Paris Agreement ended American military involvement in Indochina and Hanoi released all the American prisoners.
For Lander, it is his Vietnam experience that is the catalyst for his willing embrace of the Black September terrorists. Ostracized by his fellow POWs for collaborating with the North Vietnamese and discovering that his wife has had an affair, Lander is pushed to the brink of madness by the hostility his fellow POWs – especially the senior officer – feel toward him. Unable to cope with his humiliation and anger, Michael Lander resigns his commission and goes job hunting, finding the going tough until, finally, he is hired by the Aldrich rubber company to fly blimps.
By now, however, Lander is plotting a most lethal sort of revenge upon the country he believes caused him to lose his pride, his honor, six years of his life, his manhood, and his wife. Inspired by the Black September attack on the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, he contacts the radical terrorist group, asking for explosives and technical assistance so he can convert the Aldrich blimp into a flying Claymore mine. The target: the Super Bowl championship game. The place: the new Superdome stadium in New Orleans.
Intrigued, the Palestinians send one of their deadliest – and most beautiful – operatives, Dahlia Iyad. She spends a year in the United States, cultivating, evaluating, and becoming intimate with Lander, a man she knows to be increasingly insane yet incredibly useful to Black September’s goal of making America pay for her support of Palestine’s hated enemy, Israel.
Harris takes the reader along on a transatlantic race against the clock as the terrorists make their detailed plans and get ever closer to accomplishing their deadly mission, while Mossad (the Israeli intelligence service), the CIA, and the FBI hunt the terrorists down after finding clues that point to an impending attack on American soil. Leading the hunt is Major David Kabakov, whose ruthless efficiency at chasing and killing Palestinian terrorists has earned him the dark-humored nickname of “the final solution.” And as Harris interweaves the storylines of the hunter and hunted, the reader is enticed to keep reading to find out who will preservere….and who will die.
Harris masterfully flashes backward and forward through time, driving the terrorist plot forward step by step and describing the American-Israeli collaborative effort to find Dahlia and her comrades before they can carry out their plan in minute detail, all the while examining Lander’s long spiral into murderous madness. The pace is fast and furious, giving the reader an excellent example of a well-crafted suspense novel that not only never loses focus or goes into unnecessary tangents, but is also grounded in the reality of the mid-1970s. It discusses such real-life events as the Munich Massacre, the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, and the beginning of the spread of global terrorism. Black September, the Palestinian sponsors of Lander’s plan, really existed, and so did most of the agencies and entities depicted in the novel, with Aldrich Rubber being a fictional stand-in for Goodyear.
Black Sunday not only marked the debut of a master of the suspense genre, but it was also made into a moderately successful motion picture which co-starred Bruce Dern and Robert Shaw.