IT MUST be increasingly difficult to concoct international thrillers filled with intrigue, deception and sex when real life challenges fiction at every turn.
Item: The first lady of television interviewers is named as a covert courier who carried messages from Iranian arms dealers to the White House. Item: A beautiful blonde secretary smuggles secret documents out of the White House. Item: $10 million is "misplaced" when it's deposited in the wrong Swiss bank account. Item: A West German teen-ager manages to fly his single-engine Cessna through hundreds of miles of Soviet air space, then land it in the middle of Moscow's Red Square.
Well, it's enough to make a grown Ludlum weep. Where do writers of spy novels go from here? Let's see.
The time is the present, the place the American embassy in London. Ambassador Fulmer's ambitious wife, new to matters of protocol, has planned an Anglo-American Fourth of July gala with a guest list so illustrious that the party constitutes a gigantic security risk. "All those celebrities in one place," the charge' d'affaires says, "like pinning a target over your heart and handing a gun to the nearest terrorist."
Army Intelligence officer Ned French is placed in charge of security for this volatile event -- as if the colonel didn't have enough problems already. His 20-year marriage is falling apart, and he's have an affair with another embassy employee, Jane Weil. French, a superspook used to keeping his emotions in check, is feeling unusually vulnerable. He has only a week to work out a defensive strategy; as the days fly by, his paranoia grows. According to an old joke, even paranoids have real enemies, and French is no exception. An envious CIA agent named Larry Rand is working behind the scenes to make sure that the party is a fiasco. If Colonel French should be wounded or killed in the melee, Rand wouldn't mind a bit.
The seeming inevitability of a violent confrontation makes Embassy a tense read. Waller, best known for his riveting nonfiction works Dog Day Afternoon and Hide in Plain Sight, proves equally adept as a novelist. His dialogue is believable and his characterizations unusually rich for the thriller genre. Bert and Khefte, terrorists from yet another Arab splinter group, are chillingly drawn. French himself is a fascinating creation, a hard-headed realist who's spent half his life in a world where nothing is as it seems.
ANOTHER novel that features an engaging protagonist in a hazardous profession is Crow's Parliament. The protagonist is Simon Guerney, who rescues victims of international kidnapping. (The job sounds a trifle implausible until we recall that in this "real" world of ours, it's also possible to make a living re-snatching children snatched in custody disputes and de-programming Moonies.) As Jack Curtis notes, Guerney is simply "a specialist in a growth industry."
Guerney is an Oxford-educated Briton who left a career in the diplomatic corps because he had a little problem with authority and knew he "lacked the talent for ordinary living." Simon's current assignment is his most challenging to date. Hired to recover David Paschini, the teen-aged son of a wealthy Italian industrialist, he soon discovers that the scheme is anything but a straightforward kidnap for ransom. David, it seems, possesses certain psychic abilities that are of great interest to both the American and British intelligence communities. The boy is able to establish a dreamlike, symbiotic communication with his would-be rescuer, and Simon is drawn into an increasingly baffling situation. His difficulties multiply when he renews his relationship with a former lover, CIA operative Rachel Irving.
Curtis leads us, with scarcely a misstep, through a convoluted plot involving parapsychological research, computer technology and the anti-nuclear movement. A London-based poet using a pseudonym here, he displays particular skill in his lyrical descriptive passages and his intuitive portrayal of women, from the devious Irving to David's alcoholic mother Caroline and a narcissistic prostitute called Stella. Thriller fans who favor the physical over the intellectual will be glad to know that Curtis has bodies stacked like firewood by the time we reach the final chapters. The reader's ultimate satisfaction with this novel, though, will probably be measured in inverse proportion to his skepticism about psychic phenomena.
WITH Dan Sherman's help, we travel from space-age espionage to spying of a much earlier vintage. Sherman takes us all the way back to 1780, in fact, to a grisly happening known as the White Swan murders. In an inn in New York's Hudson Valley, a young seamstress and an English lieutenant are found brutally murdered. Jane Dearborn and Colin Smith have been butchered so savagely that authorities originally suspect a jealous lover.
When rumors begin to circulate that the pair actually were rebel spies employed by General Washington, a more thorough investigation seems necessary. A young officer named Matty Grove heads the inquiry, and it's not long before he becomes certain that the murders were orchestrated by an influential traitor in the Colonial camp. He gradually uncovers a plot involving Freemasonry, illegal trade and a wealthy slaver named Edwin Hyde.
Sherman makes an admirable effort to capture the speech of the times, only occasionally lapsing by using a contemporary expression like "if you get my drift." He lets us eavesdrop on fictive conversations with Thomas Paine, Paul Revere and George Washington himself. Finally, though, there's less to The Traitor than meets the eye.
REVIEWERS soon learn to take publishers' claims with a grain of indifference. That's why I paid little attention when St. Martin's gushed: "Combine the music of Clavell and Michener with the beat of Indiana Jones, and you're dancing the Shanghai Tango!" No book, I reasoned, could be as gratuitously dumb as that blurb.
Or could it? Describing Shanghai Tango is quite a challenge, but try to imagine Romancing the Stone with a lobotomy. William Overgard would have us believe that in 1931 a polo player from Pasadena goes to China on a mission motivated by greed, family honor and patriotism. Once in Shanghai, Adrian Reed meets assorted sordid types: a blonde named Lola who dances the tango in a nightclub with an ape dressed in a tuxedo, a Marine named Bodine who has a generally low opinion of the human race, and a samurai with a foot fetish. Adrian has no sooner found the object of his quest -- $1.5 million in gold and two crates of vital Japanese military documents -- when he's swindled out of the prize by a high-ranking Chinese official known variously as Mr. Min and Marshal Yu. Reed and Bodine pursue Min/Yu to the city of Sian in an attempt to prevent a coup. The final showdown is gratifyingly gory, complete with Cossacks on horseback, machine gun duels in the snow and an actual decapitation.
The author leaves no slur unslurred when it comes to Orientals and women. The most appealing character in Shanghai Tango is, in fact, Ramon the dancing ape. Overgard is nothing if not enthusiastic. If all the exclamation marks in this disagreeable novel were laid end to end, the resulting chain would reach from Washington to the title city!
AUGUSTO FERRERA'S first novel is a rarity: a thriller with a moral sensibility. The Honor of Peter Kramer is as much about ethics as it is about intrigue. Ferrera, a Californian with Mexican/German roots, says that the story grew out of his fascination with the Holocaust and its aftermath.
The novel opens in Europe in the turbulent spring of 1941. SS Major General Hans-Dieter von Bergdorf has just been awarded the Knight's Cross, a coveted medal presented by the Fuhrer himself. As the war unfolds Hans-Dieter, a moral man who does not espouse the Nazi philosophy, learns that the hideous rumors he's been hearing about a plan to exterminate the Jews are indeed true. A visit to Auschwitz brings him to the brink of suicide; he vows to spend the rest of his life seeking his own Wiedergutmachung, or atonement.
Bergdorf risks his career and his life by smuggling several thousand French Jews to safety. The war's end finds him in the United States with a Swiss passport and a new name, Peter Kramer. He earns a PhD in Middle Eastern history from Harvard and eventually comes to the attention of the president, Simon Bolivar Jensen. Kramer's true identity is discovered while he is negotiating a delicate Arab-Israeli treaty on President Jensen's behalf. His situation is particularly precarious because Jensen is an emotionally unstable man who hates everything and everyone Teutonic.
Ferrera seems to lose his focus midway in this compelling story by telling us about the sexual perversities of the members of a powerful international cartel -- almost as if he's begun to worry that a crisis of conscience isn't juicy enough to sustain our interest. And it's true that his Kramer, whom he eulogizes as "a Righteous Gentile and a Friend of Man," is often too saintly to be real. Still, The Honor of Peter Kramer is a polished, thoughtful debut. :: Joyce Slate is a free-lance writer who lives in Georgia.