Robert Moss, the author of "Death Beam," is half of the team that wrote "The Spike." Not having read that erstwhile best seller, I cannot say whether "Death Beam" is half as good or half as bad. Whatever the case, it is awful.
If anyone ever decides to teach a course in how not to write a thriller, "Death Beam" could -- and should -- serve admirably as the text. It is execrably plotted and execrably written; none of its characters comes even close to something approximating life; its attempts to be a roman a clef are pitiably clumsy. For a novel represented as authoritatively sophisticated about global conflict and espionage, "Death Beam" is remarkably naive about even the rudiments of fiction.
It is also curiously defensive. Having had half of a success with "The Spike" and presumably hoping for the whole loaf with "Death Beam," Robert Moss is at pains to anticipate and disarm his critics. In one scene a literary agent named Sally Sherwin, dining with her lover, discusses a publisher who bears a suspicious resemblance to Roger Straus Jr., of Farrar, Straus and Giroux:
" 'Oh, that was Milton Verger,' said Sally. Verger was head of an independent family firm whose authors collected a lot of literary prizes but failed to impress the bookstore chains. 'He talks as if it's immoral to make money in publishing. As if a book lacks literary depth unless the stores return it by the thousands. I don't think it's wrong to publish page-turners. Even if some of them could do with a little more editing. I don't think Milton Verger has the right to dictate what the public ought to read or what authors ought to earn.' "
It's the old Harold Robbins lament: Nobody loves me except millions of readers. In fact, the argument has merit: There's as much room in the world of books for entertainment as there is for art, the protests of literary snobs notwithstanding. But in the case of "Death Beam," the argument doesn't wash. "Death Beam" is not a "page-turner"; turning its pages requires stamina and energy and, in my case at least, the infusion of cold cash. Nor is "Death Beam" an entertainment, save for those who get their kicks from exhaustion and ennui.
"Death Beam," the energetic advertising on its behalf to the contrary, is nothing more than another run-of-the-mill piece of hack work. Not merely is it written to formula; it can't even follow the formula. Since its main plot line has to do with American efforts to defuse the Russians' "death beam," described as "the most efficient weapon of mass destruction ever known to man," one would assume that the successful completion of that task would be the novel's climax. Yet it is tossed aside almost offhandedly, with more than 60 pages left in the novel -- 60 pages of manifest silliness. "Death Beam" does not have a climax.
Contrast Moss' structural ineptitude with a recent and vastly more skillful novel in the same genre, David Wise's "Spectrum." There, the suspense revolves around whether a CIA gone berserk will nuke the White House; the question is not resolved until the final pages, after all the requisite ingredients of the formula -- feats of imagination and derring-do, hairbreadth escapes and rescues, a delightfully preposterous final scene -- have been faithfully and entertainingly followed.
Moss can't handle even the most fundamental situation. Early in the novel Charles Canning, a suave British agent, photographs some suspicious characters in the Cafe' Carlyle, using a mini-camera hidden in his cigarette lighter. His date admires the lighter and asks to see it:
"An imperceptible twist of Canning's thumbnail in the base of the lighter, and the minute lens cover on its side was sealed flush with the surface, hidden from any casual observer. The girl turned the lighter around in the palm of her hand like a Faberge' egg, then amused herself by switching the flame on and off."
All of which is fine, except: She never gives the lighter back. The reader, noticing this, suspects that she may be a KGB agent. But the reader is simply more alert than the author. Moss forgot the lighter. Many pages later Canning is shown studying the pictures from a lighter that so far as the reader knows was never returned to him. Moss seems not to understand a fundamental rule of fiction, as of life: An action, once begun, must be completed.
But he does understand the cliche's. "Death Beam" takes place in all the predictable locales: New York, Washington, Moscow, Israel, Miami, the Middle East. (When is someone going to write a spy novel set in Oslo and Chicago?) He interrupts his narrative, such as it is, for page upon page of information, or purported information, about global politics or espionage hardware or whatever; much of the novel reads as if it were an annual report. If there's a cliche' of melodramatic writing that he fails to employ, I am unaware of it.
Moss, incidentally, is identified in the promotional material accompanying the book not merely as an experienced British journalist but also as "a poet." Yes, and I am the King of Siam.