When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan, in January, 2002, Americans were reeling from 9/11. They were also ravenous for information about portions of the globe that previously hadn't crossed their radar. Pearl, the Journal's South Asia bureau chief, was trying to figure out who was behind events in a region rampant with virulent anti-American sentiment.
In his wife's words, Daniel Pearl felt he could "change the world by changing the way people think about one another." He was an idealist who sought truth and disparaged sensationalism. Raised in California, he was 38 years old, handsome, charming, and a talented musician who rarely traveled without his mandolin or his Dutch-Cuban-French wife, also a journalist. Although in her sixth month of pregnancy with their first child, Mariane Pearl, a reporter for French television and radio, was with him in Karachi.
But, as Ms. Pearl writes in this passionate, heartbreaking memoir, "I think about how easy it is to reduce this story to a simple tale: handsome hostage husband, pregnant despairing wife.... While simplification of complex events may seem harmless, it isn't."
During her ordeal, she manages to convince Pakistani investigators to cooperate not just with her, but with the FBI. She resists crying on television and "feeding some real-life drama-hungry viewer back home." Similarly, she chastises CNN's Chris Burns in French when he tactlessly asks whether she's seen the appalling video of her husband's decapitation, something she refuses to watch.
Months later, back in Paris, she rails against CBS for airing fragments of the grue- some footage, angrily pointing out that the terrorists made a video because they "knew all along you'd be ratings-hungry enough to broadcast it. They appealed to your instinct, and you gave in."
Mariane Pearl is spirited and refreshingly feisty. "A Mighty Heart," a title that might play better in French, is written for Daniel and their son and in defiance of the terrorists who killed her husband. She and coauthor Sarah Crichton know how to structure a compelling story. Her book reads like a tensely plotted thriller. We find ourselves hoping against hope that things will turn out differently.
Writing in the present tense, she takes us back to January, 23, 2002, when she wakes with her husband sweetly curled around her pregnant body. In her telling, Daniel comes alive as "charmingly goofy," with his propensity towards list-making and scattering his possessions wherever he lands. She writes of their shared idealism and their disparate bloodlines - Daniel's Iraqi Jewish mother and Israeli-born father, her own Dutch-Jewish father and Cuban-black-Hispanic-Chinese mother - the sum of which makes their son Adam genuinely a citizen of the world.
On their last scheduled day in Karachi, Daniel has "meetings stacked up like planes over a crowded airport." His last appointment, at 7 p.m., is with Sheikh Gilani, a radical Muslim cleric whom he believes might have a connection to Robert Reid, the thwarted shoe bomber. Ms. Pearl conveys the intricate planning that goes into such a meeting, the "fixers" and go-betweens and drivers to whom a reporter must entrust his life in order to get an interview or story.
She maintains that Daniel is by nature a cautious person, citing his insistence on backseat seatbelts, the fact that he hasn't rushed to Afghanistan, and a detailed memo on reporter safety, unfortunately ignored, that he sent to his editors at the Wall Street Journal. Of course, snaking out controversial connections among terrorists in Southeast Asia isn't everyone's idea of cautious behavior.
Ms. Pearl lucidly explains important political background, including the battle over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and the way jihadi militants work through an "endlessly layered" chain of secrecy, which makes tracing terrorist activities exceedingly difficult. She knows almost immediately that Danny "has been kidnapped by men who have kidnapped their own god, by which I mean men who have twisted the concept of jihad, of holy war, into something warped and wrong."
The central portion of "A Mighty Heart" is about the anxious, chicken biranyi-fueled weeks of investigation, with a team Ms. Pearl comes to respect. By the time some of those responsible for Danny's kidnapping are arrested on February 5th, he has already been murdered.
In his recently published book "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" (Melville House), French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy points out disturbing connections between Pakistan's intelligence unit, ISI, Al Qaeda, and Omar Sheikh, the man convicted of arranging Pearl's murder - links that Ms. Pearl also adumbrates. She understands, however, that Danny was murdered because he was Jewish and American, because journalists are frequently suspected of espionage, and as a lesson both to America and to Musharraf for collaborating with America.
When Ms. Pearl and the investigators learn of Danny's murder, we feel their rage, grief, and frustration. Her husband was truly a pearl among swine. Read "A Mighty Heart" and weep, not just for this family, but for the world.
• Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.