With the publication of his second novel, it beings to become clear that Douglas Terman has a formula all his own. The first ingredient is a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and he varies the outcome from one book to the next. The first novel, the very successful "First Strike," the war was averted at the last minute, against overwhelming odds. In "Free Flight," the war has happened and nobody has really won, although there are Russians among the semi-bandit "security forces," which are clamping an iron rule on what remains of the United States. The world seems headed back toward some kind of feudalism, not the unified empire that the Russians imagined when they launched their missiles.

The second ingredient in both books is a hero who is rather undistinguished except for his experience in air combat, which turns out to have no value in relation to the atomic war but considerable value for the hero's own survival. In both novels, the hero is confronted and clearly defeated by the bad guys, but then he gets his hands on a small aircraft, escapes in it north to Canada, runs into some further complications and finally manages to start life anew. In "First Strike," the hero managed to escape in a small propeller plane from the Caribbean to Canada although he was pursued by a flock of MIG jets from Cuba. In "Free Flight," the feat is less spectacular: an escape from Vermont to Canada, pursued by a few helicopters.

Has Douglas Terman written the same book twice? There is no reason why he shouldn't; it is a common and lucrative practice among novelists these days. hBut, in fact, he has done something rather different. He has shown how much variety can be achieved working with essentially the same ingredients. He has also shown how much a writer can grow from his first to his second novel, if he has what it takes. "First Strike," for all the critical acclaim it received ("a rattling good story" -- The New York Times; "A gripping thriller" -- John Barkham), was a rather clumsy book, as first novels are expected to be. "Free Flight" is a lean, taut, beautifully articulated and curiously convincing despite a basic premise that is (let us hope) highly improbable.

The hero of "First Strike" has the curious name of Brian Loss -- a last name that is obviously symbolic and highly appropriate. When he is not piloting a plane, Loss is something like a seagull on land -- awkward and a little comic. When he discovers that the Russians have corrupted and manipulated a presidential candidate to trick the U.S. into unilateral disarmament, he makes almost every possible mistake in his attempt to thwart their machinations -- until the last moment when he makes one spectacularly right decision and saves the world from nuclear holocaust. Several times, he is saved from death -- which would be the logical and richly earned result of his folly -- only because the author needs to keep him around for the end. The book has a happy ending only because Douglas Terman and his publishers thought it should, not out of any inner necessity.

While the ingredients of "Free Flight" are strikingly similar, the tight structure and convincing flow of the narrative show Terman's considerable growth as a novelist. His hero, Gregory Mallen, is a much more competent human being, and his success (a rather ambiguous success -- and that's a plus) is derived directly from his skills, which he employs credibly in a situation that has been made believable. The characters are much less numerous and more carefully drawn -- well-rounded individuals, not stereotypes, so that one really comes to care about what happens to them.

Most important of all are the long flight scenes which serve as a centerpiece in each book. In "First Strike," the flight scene seems to be stuck in because Terman has a lot of experience as a pilot and writes about it knowingly and well. There is a bit of suspense because Loss seems to be running out of gas over the Atlantic, but then it just peters out when he discovers that he was closer to his destination that he had expected.

In "Free Flight," the central flight scene is the most essential part of the plot, carefully prepared and motivated and written with a smoooth, polished skill that makes the reader forget it is more than 60 pages long and wish it could be even longer.

"First Strike" was a slightly bumpy training flight that showed considerable promise but a slight lack of polish. "Free Flight" is the fulfillment of that promise -- as distinctive and carefully crafted a suspense novel as we are likely to see this year. I don't know how many more times Douglas Terman can build new recipes out of the same ingredients, or whether he will manage to find some new elements for his next novel. But this one is so good that I will look forward eagerly to the answers to these questions.