This is 1984, so the villains must be Communists. Russian, of course. One of the most topical of all spy novelists, Helen MacInnes has kept up with the news ever since her first novel "Above Suspicion" in 1941 featured Nazis (quite accurately) in the role of deep-dyed, despicable dastards.
In that respect, "Ride a Pale Horse" is no exception. Neither will it break the record of her 20 previous novels, all of which were best sellers and book club selections and, remarkably, remain in print. MacInnes has a faithful constituency of readers who guarantee an enthusiastic reception for her own special brand of international intrigue cum romance.
In fact, I used to be one of them. But her last book, "Cloak of Darkness," was disappointing, and "Pale Horse" has not improved matters: It's just one more rearrangement of standardized parts. The old weaknesses -- paper people and a jerry-built style -- are magnified, and the old strengths -- colorful travelogues and riveting suspense -- are eroded.
Karen Cornell is 37, widowed, beautiful and wears linen a lot. She's an up-and-coming reporter for a Washington current-affairs magazine, and one of only eight reporters from the West allowed to enter Czechoslovakia to cover an international peace convention. There she is contacted by Josef Vasek, a KGB colonel who plans to defect and passes along several Russian forgeries to underline his importance to the West. He also mentions the existence of a mole in the CIA without, for some reason, naming him.
No doubt this is meant to set up an extended suspense element in the story, but the turncoats (as it develops, there are three, in and out of the CIA) are fingered quite early in the game and without much in the way of detective ingenuity. This leaves Vasek's ulterior motives as the only puzzle left, and they turn out to be more complicated but less exciting than the original documented threat, which at least involved starting a nuclear war. The biggest surprise in the story, in fact, is that there are no real surprises.
There is love, of course. There's always love in a MacInnes book, and here it sparks between Karen and Peter Bristow, "almost six feet, well-proportioned body, good profile," a genuine, good-guy CIA disinformation expert, who takes over the action and the brainwork from Karen halfway into the book. He saves her from terrorist assassination, whereupon she retires to his Washington apartment for the remainder of the story. Aside from a girlish shot into the ceiling when the Commies invade, she takes very little effective part in the rest of the proceedings except to preoccupy Peter's spare moments.
Certain MacInnes characteristics some critics complain about seem to me rather charming in contrast to much of spy fiction, which has become heavy-breathing and close to amoral. She has never been in doubt as to whose side she's on. (Her political conservatism seems less preachy in this book than in some past ones, but no less pronounced.) She has never exploited sex or ladled out unnecessary horror or violence, which means she produces in other areas to keep her readers interested, a skill unavailable to many modern novelists (or TV or movie writers either, for that matter).
So it is not her old-fashioned qualities that dishearten. It is a new fatigue that seems to invade these pages, a kind of enervation that shows in banal conversation, perfunctory descriptions, and the kind of backwards plotting that seems to work retroactively from the known facts of the conclusion to dictate which of several options a character will choose in a given situation. For a reader moving the opposite way, many of these directions and institutions seem arbitrary and without motivation.
Despite the tortuous intrigue and promising material -- Prague, Vienna, Rome, the peculiar Russian art form of disinformation -- "Ride a Pale Horse" really does not carry its weight. The title comes from the Book of Revelation: "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: And his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."
Well, now, that seems a little severe. Let's just say, MacInnes has done better before and she will again.