JOEL SWERDLOW is a young Washington journalist and author who is going to write good suspense novels. But he hasn't done it yet.
In Code Z ., Swerdlow's first excursion into the genre, he starts with a fine idea and then stuffs it with shapeless, needless fat.
A group of sinister, faceless people plot the bomb destruction of three commercial airliners leaving Dulles airport for London, Paris and Dakar.We are led to believe that, somehow, the explosions and mass deaths will ruin a Middle East peace conference in Geneva -- although the relationship between the terrorism and the conference is never explained. That isn't the real reason for the conspiracy, but we're supposed to think it is. Red herrings should be as plausible as the genuine motives they're camouflaging: this one isn't.
The United States government -- under a slightly flaky president named Hutchkins -- evokes a constitutionally preposterous statute called "Code Z." Under its provisions, set up in the book's prologue, a CIA agent -- in this case, one Dan Horgan -- can take charge of the entire federal establishment, in certain emergencies, without hindrance or accountability to anyone until the crisis situation is ended.
If Code Z's crisis -- beyond the terrible specter of three, packed, transatLantic flights carrying bombs -- is unbelievable, so is the device to deal with it. And that's the double whammy which cripples the plot as it begins.
Most of the novel covers the three hours between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. during which Horgan takes over the government and the crisis. He orders around cabinet secretaries, provokes bureaucratic and political jealousies, barely survives an explosion in the Federal Aviation Administration, is kidnapped, drugged, bashed about, nearly murdered a few times, commits two muders himself, thinks carnal thoughts while trying to cling to the training that has turned his brain into a clockwork orange and wades through blood and a lot of foulmouthed shouting to an ending as a White House assistant in happier subsequent days.
For no visible purpose Israeli intelligence is dragged into all of this -- maybe because the Israelis have become part of the standard furniture in plastic spy-cum-political-cum-crisis novels.
Ultimately, successful suspense tales derive their art from the ordinary -- from Graham Greene's flustered, uncertain heroes; from Wilkie Collins' taxtured, Victorian settings which allegorically darken into smoky, threatening dusks; from first hits of a vaguely recognizable menace like the one that haunts the opening chapter of Conrad's The Secret Agent .
Exotic war technology and computerized systems for knowing everything about everybody are bad for civilization in general. They are also dangerous to a new generation of novelists who confuses gimmickry with human life. The evocation of real life is the genesis of the fictional art. You can develop a real knot in your stomach as you watch fate gather about Harry Lime in Greene's The Third Man (even though Lime is morally hateful); watching Dan Horgan pull switches and yell down radio circuits in Code Z is about as emotionally disturbing as the latest issue of Popular Mechanics .
For all that, Swerdlow writes well (though he does need an editor who will help him avoid bloopers like calling Senate committees 'senatorial committees'). He has good basic ideas and reaearches his situations beautifully. Code Z will tell you all about international air travel, the vast scaffolding of government security systems and what it feels like to be catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier in an A-7 Navy fighter.
If Joel Swerdlow's next novel knuckles deeper into the complexity, desires and fears of real people and starts with the chemical components of real suspense, it will fulfill a new writer's obvious promise. Cide Z is a warm-up, a first draft.