"Private Sector" achieves, with an appearance of effortless ease, the ultimate goal of action-suspense writing in our time. It reads like a James Bond movie -- something that (lacking suitable models) the late Ian Fleming never quite managed to do when he wrote the James Bond books.
The writing is wide-screen and in vivid color, the action fast, violent and mysterious, the menace cosmic, the technology chilling. Jeff Millar, who has been known until now chiefly as the creator of "Tank McNamara," has taken a long step beyond the comic strip without losing the common touch -- which is also the Midas touch.
Exactly what a book like this is about matters relatively little until near the end, when the action slows down and things get a little bit dull while the author fulfills his implied contract to Explain It All -- why has a whole town been destroyed by a runaway train; what caused the mysterious power failure that blacked out all the major cities of the midwest; why are all those corporate jets parked at an insignificant little private airport in upper Michigan; who are the mysterious men who blow up a whole building to kill a few terrorists and their hostages?
The answers are always less intriguing than the questions in this sort of exercise. Here, for example, we are dealing with a simple, run-of-the mill conspiracy by some of America's largest corporations to take over the government -- masterminded by a mad scientist who is angry and frustrated because he was not elected president of the United States.
Stripped thus to its skeleton, "Private Sector" shows even more clearly its affinity to the Bond stories -- but this kind of analysis is something like knocking the putty nose off a clown in front of a circus audience. The art is in the illusion, and for most of the few hours that it takes to absorb his book, Jeff Millar spins his illusions with considerable skill. In fact, given the need for a mad scientist in his story, he creates a mad scientist much more believable than most samples of that proliferating species.
Where Millar departs most clearly from the Bond model is in his choice of heros. Rather than the cloak-and-dagger types (who have fallen badly out of public favor in recent years), he turns to the new breed of culture-hero, the investigative reporter -- and because two heros are better than one, he uses a pair of them.
They are John Harland, who is the heir-apparent to Walter Cronkite at CBS, and Molly Rice, a tough cookie who is one of the stars on the national desk of The New York Times. They live together, love each other in the brittle, tempestuous way that is now fashionalbe among Beautiful People, and never talk business because during working hours they are friendly rivals, and sometimes they are both working on the same story without even knowing it.
Such is the case when they meet unexpectedly in Houston (which happens to be Millar's home town and is, therefore, described in particularly loving detail). They are following up clues that relate to separate parts of the same conspiracy; Molly is a better reporter than John, and her thoroughness ultimately is her undoing -- and, because they don't talk business, it takes John many pages to understand.
Otherwise, it is not character but action that keeps the pages turning in "Private Sector" -- and the action is prime stuff if you don't stop too much to think about it: everything from routine kidnappings to a meltdown in an atomic power plant, with a crucial dial creeping slowly to the critical point while the good guys fight their way to the controls that will turn the thing off. Millar has a flair for this kind of action -- slow motion, with sharp close-ups on key details and enough going on to sustain two or three levels of suspense at once: will Denver be wiped out by radioactive steam; will John rise above his common decency and kill the mad scientist even though he is unarmed and slightly batty; will the United States become a wholly-owned subsidiary of a multinational conglomerate that puts pictures of Thomas Edison on its dollar bills?
Those fortunate few who can resist all this will say that it is all formula and go back to their "Moby Dick" or "Remembrance of Things Past," and of course they are quite right. But those who consume suspense as others consume alcohol will be happy to know that the formula has a new master.