NEST OF VIPERS By Linda Davies Doubleday. 406 pp. $23 SARAH JENSEN is a woman for our times. At 27, the heroine of Linda Davies's debut financial thriller has "all the trappings of a normal life, albeit at a rarefied level." She's brilliant, gorgeous and her Croesus touch in financial speculation has made her one of the craftiest foreign-exchange traders in London, "the best of her generation."
She's just the person the Bank of England and the Counter-Narcotics division at MI6 (Britain's Secret Intelligence Service) must recruit. It seems that every time G7 intervenes in international monetary policy, the currency traders at the London bank ICM immediately reap astronomical profits, which suggest insider trading at the highest level. Planted within ICM, Sarah might uncover the source of the leak. If Sarah is caught, the service promises to disavow any knowledge of her actions.
At ICM, Sarah finds herself awash in enough duplicity to defoliate Eden. Every time ICM's head of currency trading, dapper Dante Scarpirato, says buy lira, marks or sterling in huge quantity, astounding profits pour into ICM. Using keen ears and several bugging devices, Sarah uncovers a network of criminal ties that may link ICM to gold-digging girlfriends, a continental bank governor, blackmail, porn flicks, professional hitwomen and the Mafia. But little will turn out as it first appears, for even in her first novel Davies shows masterful indirection, letting just the right red herrings swim by. Davies provides enough cinematic narrow escapes and deadly failures to escape for MGM to have already begun producing the movie.
Formerly a merchant banker, Oxford-educated Davies writes of mind-boggling sums with authority. The chief treasure here, however, is the fascinating character of Sarah. Descended from New Orleans Cajuns and orphaned at 8, she has a Byronic enchantment and "searing vulnerability" and seems haunted by nameless sins and wounds from her past. She'd been left to the loving but larcenous nurture of Jacob Goldsmith, an expert safecracker who helps her through this criminal mine field. She has acquired a "layered morality" that enables her to do almost anything, yet feel more guilt about it than a man might. Readers will hope this is not the last they see of her. IMPERFECT STRANGERS By Stuart Woods Harper Collins. 271 pp. $23 IF IMMATURE artists imitate while mature artists steal, veteran Stuart Woods demonstrates his maturity right off by unabashedly lifting the premise of Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," which is the in-flight movie watched by seatmates Sandy Kinsolving and Peter Martindale.
Wine-merchant Kinsolving is a man of action, balancing sex and a transatlantic phone conversation simultaneously in the novel's opening paragraphs. The call summons him home from London to New York, where his father-in-law and employer hovers near death. Once aloft, drinking heavily, Kinsolving shares his life story with stranger-on-a-plane Martindale. If her father dies, he says, Kinsolving's wife will not only ignore the old man's promise to make him a partner but will fire and divorce him.
Martindale, a San Francisco art dealer, professes to be in a similar plight, with an equally avaricious spouse back home. These parallel dilemmas inspire in the men more than passing interest in Hitchcock's plot about exchanging murders.
Which doesn't make Kinsolving a bad guy. His wife proves to be a heartless, blackmailing witch far worse than he'd described. Her own son wouldn't miss her. And he doesn't, after Martindale kills her even though Kinsolving has called off the plan. Unfortunately, the newly rich wine merchant has entered into a mortal bargain with a lying psychopath.
With a polish that some will find too slick, the story races at a dizzying pace from London's Garrick Club to Martha's Vineyard to Alcatraz, offering art forgeries and capricious homicides, suicides and assassinations. Woods's world is populated by distrustful New York detectives, tenacious Napa Valley deputies and handy London barristers, plus beautiful strangers who use aliases, ably pilot fancy yachts and make love to the bereaved Kinsolving on corporate jets when he's not sipping Le Montrachet '55 or Veuve Cliquot '66. Woods won't make anyone forget Dostoevsky, or even Hitchcock, but he does show a reader a good time. FAITH By Len Deighton HarperCollins. 337 pp. $24 VENERABLE SUSPENSE master Deighton refuses to make it easy on himself. His initial offering in his third trilogy about British spy Bernard Samson (after Hook, Line and Sinker and Game, Set and Match) is set in the waning Cold War days of 1987, a temporal low-interest zone too recent for historical fiction and too ancient to reflect contemporary politics.
But Deighton more than compensates for his dated chessboard by placing in the middle of it the affable, battle-worn Samson and his swarm of domestic and professional predicaments. He's married to ambitious Fiona, who is rapidly climbing the espionage ladder above him and just back from a feigned undercover defection that no one told Samson about. Having just witnessed her sister's murder, Fiona has an excuse for her native coldness. Bernard is left troubled by his love for the younger woman who cared for him and his children in Fiona's absence.
So bringing VERDI, a top East German spy, safely to England is among the least of Samson's problems, although he endures abundant gunfire, lumps and bruises in the process. More troubling is his feeling that he is married to the wrong woman and the fact that his best friend has become persona non grata in Britain. A Brit raised in Germany, Samson has a bifocal view of his identity that intensifies his feeling of flux and rootlessness, the illusory quicksilver world of cloak and dagger, where what seems fair proves foul and mistrust is everyone's outlook of choice.
What raises Deighton's genre fiction to art is not only his absorbing characters but his metaphoric grace ("once anyone began tapping this fragile hypothesis with the fingertip of reasoning, it would fall into a thousand brittle fragments"), his droll wit ("the sound of Dicky tapping his expensive fountain-pen against his still more expensive teeth"), his command of technical detail (from how glass shows bullet holes to what biscuits the Swiss eat in winter) and his sure sense of place (when he sets a scene in Zurich or Berlin, you are there).
Teasingly, Deighton leaves several matters unresolved. He's shown Faith. Now we crave Hope. BOMBARDIERS By Po Bronson Random House. 319 pp. $22 (Forthcoming in March) PROMISING NEWCOMER Po Bronson hits the bond-trading market hard and often in this brisk satire. The stressed-out bond peddlers at Atlantic Pacific Corp. spin fortunes from cotton candy foundations of ignorance and dreams. Sid Geeder, 34, is top salesdog because he pushes mortgage bonds -- "brand new and nobody understood them, so they were easy to sell because no client wanted to admit they lacked the intellectual brainpower to understand these complex, variable cash flows."
This high-pressure world is so slimy that one veteran trader must floss his teeth after every sale: "Success was only a question of how much they could lie before they felt guilty, and then how much guilt they could take before they suffered psychological malfunction." When bilking a few million from individuals proves too petty, they raise their sights to entire countries. The Dominican Republic, up to its cordilleras in debt, has non-liquid assets of $7 billion. By buying up its debts and foreclosing, our bondsmen can engineer a hostile takeover of the country.
A former bond analyst with First Boston, Bronson writes with a vigor that becomes frenetic, and his chapter format of focusing on individual topics (numbers, addictions, time, filth, etc.) grows increasingly formulaic. Similarly, his characters -- Eggs Igino, Lisa Lisa and Coyote Jack -- are blatant Catch-22 rip-offs who feel like cardboard caricatures thrown hastily onto the stage. Still, however unbridled, Bronson's talent is impressive, and his lampooning has the clear, loud ring of truth. THE WEATHERMAN By Steve Thayer Viking. 464 pp. $22.95 STEVE THAYER'S second novel, and second paean to the nobility of life in Minnesota, is a thriller with a protracted, unpredictable and highly satisfying ending.
With each new season in Minneapolis, another woman falls victim to a neck-snapping serial killer. The murders' link to the weather, plus a partial fingerprint, lead police to the Channel 7 newsroom and its obsessive weatherman, Dixon Bell. But "Sky High News" writer Rick Beanblossom believes Bell innocent and sets out to prove it, even though the men have a fundamental conflict. Both love aspiring anchorwoman Andrea Labore, who possesses "the prettiest face in Minnesota."
While Bell is the titular figure, Beanblossom is the novel's sole interesting character. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Beanblossom wears a mask to hide the face burned off by napalm in Vietnam. He hasn't had sex in 20 years.
Other characters, sadly, get lost in Thayer's jumbled design. Although maintaining a taut suspense (we're uncertain of the killer's identity right to the final pages), Thayer has several editorial stances to promote -- on abortion, capital punishment and the superficiality of television news -- and the shrill grind of these axes obtrudes on his story. So, too, do overly hyperbolic description ("raindrops began hitting like bombs") and Thayer's penchant for being inappropriately flip: "The great tornado wrote a new chapter on urban sprawl."
However, Thayer has done creditable research on prisons, newsrooms and meteorology, and he supplies a wealth of tense scenes, making this highly readable thriller fare. Andy Solomon, fiction editor of the Tampa Review, teaches writing at the University of Tampa. CAPTION: Len Deighton