A good CIA spy thriller is a kind of conjurer's trick -- plenty of attention-grabbing action on the surface to divert the eye from wild implausibilities at the base. It's a formula Marilyn Sharp has mastered in "Sunflower," her first novel. She's come up with a super hot assignment for super cool CIA agent Richard Owen: kidnap Anne Easton, the 4-year-old daughter of the president of the United States -- on the president's orders -- as part of an operation to flush out a Soviet agent-in-place at a "high level" of our government. When Sharp talks about a high level, she's not kidding. The suspected mole is none other than the director of the CIA -- who happens also to be President Matt Easton's top political strategist, chief policy adviser, hatchetman and best buddy (a combination Hamilton Jordan, Stansfield Turner and Bert Lance, which is mind-blowing in more ways than one). But before you can say, "Hey, just a minute here...", Sharp has this wild story off and running at such a fast clip, ducking and dodging with unexpected twists and turns, that skepticism and doubt are left behind and we are right along with her -- breathless but believing. Well, if not believing totally, at least reading hard to find out what happens next.
Needless to say, Sharp has based her fantasies on the good old days when the CIA really could mount covert operations, dish out drugs, disguises and dirty tricks at the drop of a code word ("double red alert" is the one they use here). A spy thriller based on the new above-board CIA would be a contradiction in terms -- strictly a non-thriller.
But to get back to Richard Owen, once he's napped the kid -- in a lulu of a scene -- and spirited Anne to an island in the Aegean, he discovers he's been duped. It's the Soviets who've masterminded the kidnaping. Now both the KGB and the CIA want Owen dead or alive (their guys want him dead; ours want him alive). He must return the tot safely to the White House -- and fast. The action moves lickety cut back across the world with one of Owen's fantastic disguises giving way to another. He's a chameleon at changing his identity and a Houdini at escapes.
By the time Owen and Anne have slipped across borders, dodged most of the intelligence agents in the Western and Eastern worlds and are back in Washington for the denouement, the improbabilities sprinkled along the way -- and the highly unlikely explanation for the whole caper -- don't seem all that important. It's a case of good fast writing outrunning good common sense -- just what every spy thriller needs. Sharp exhibits considerable skill at this slight of hand. As one bit of her plot is about to fall to the ground from sheer preposterousness, she snares you with another.
Sharp has a fluid writing style and an easy assurance at setting scenes. In Athens, she captures the old section -- the Planka -- and the Grande Bretagne Bar expertly and in Washington gives an insider's tour of the U.S. Capitol, where her husband works as a congressman, that includes places you never knew existed like the subterranean crypt where the Lincoln catafalque is stored.
As for the little touches that should adorn any spy thriller, they are numerous and handled with imagination. Dead bodies turn up in interesting places like the men's room at the White House and on the sidewalk in the Bowery -- where the supposed "derelict" turns out not to be one at all. The clue: Under the rags and tatters, he's wearing clean undershorts from London's Regent Street.
Those who like their super spies pure and icy, will love Richard Owen. "You'll trust me to do it because no one else is sufficiently foolish to try -- or brash enough to succeed" is the kind of pompous thing he says -- a James Bond without the sense of humor or the sex appeal.
Some aficionados may be troubled by the incongruities that even a fastmoving plot cannot camouflage. Your neighborhood pediatrician might raise his eyebrows at the assumption that a 4-year-old can be drugged into unconsciousness and carried about for days at a time -- none the worse for it.
But why dwell on the little credibility gaps and spoil the fun? "Sunflower" is diverting, lively and might even take your mind off events in Iran. Who could ask for more?