THE CONSIGNMENT

By Grant Sutherland

Bantam. 360 pp. $23.95 Grant Sutherland's taut new novel, set in the world of international arms sales, starts with an American Army officer named Ned Rourke telling us this about himself and his wife: The awful truth was apparent to both of us. Over the years of our marriage we'd each made discoveries about ourselves: me, that I was born to be a soldier; Fiona, that she was not born to be a soldier's wife. But when I stayed in the Army, she stuck with me. We still loved one another. If Mogadishu hadn't occurred, we might have been okay.

In Mogadishu, Rourke was badly wounded in a firefight, and his wife gave him an ultimatum: Either he would accept the teaching position he'd been offered at West Point or she would leave him. He went to West Point but soon was restless. One day he announced to his wife and college-age son that he was quitting the Army for a new career: chief of sales for an American arms manufacturer. If his wife had hated his job as a soldier, she has only contempt for his new persona as arms salesman. What she does not know -- and he cannot tell her -- is that he has gone underground for the Defense Intelligence Agency to gain evidence on illegal arms sales. He is motivated in part by the fact that during the Gulf War, four of his men had been killed by a missile made in the United States ("The truth is, we were joined in battle against the weapons of every major arms-manufacturing country on earth, including our own").

Rourke becomes involved in a $12 million sale to Jack Trevanian, a onetime British officer who now commands a mercenary army, and a mysterious African woman named Cecille Lagundi, who seems to be putting up the money. No one in this deal trusts anyone else -- with good reason, it turns out -- particularly after Lagundi insists on paying with diamonds instead of cash. But the deal finally goes through, and the weapons are on their way to the Congo, where the government will use them to put down a rebellion. Along the way, we get a crash course on the arms trade. For example: "After the collapse of the USSR, the Ukraine's emergence as a major source of weaponry and munitions for the developing world was common knowledge in the intelligence community. Even back when I was on tour in Somalia, the arrival off the coast of any vessel from the Black Sea was invariably followed by a swift escalation of hostilities as fresh supplies of Kalashnikovs and ammunition found their way to all sides in the conflict."

As the deal unfolds, Rourke's marriage is falling apart. His long hours and furtive phone calls have convinced Fiona that he is having an affair. Their son, Brad, sides with his mother. When Brad is offered a job as a geologist in the Congo, his father begs him not to accept because of the anarchy there, but the boy defies him. Soon, the author contrives to get the whole family -- husband, wife, son -- to the Congo, which does indeed prove to be a very dangerous place.

Rourke has no sooner arrived than he is arrested and thrown in jail. Outside the jail, he sees a dead American whose arms have been cut off; inside he meets another American who will soon be beaten to death. "A trapdoor had suddenly opened beneath my feet and dropped me into a nightmare world I knew nothing about." He escapes the jail with Trevanian's help, only to emerge into the middle of a civil war. Given a chance for safety, he instead steals a car and heads for the diamond mines where he thinks his son is a hostage. A great deal of blood flows before the story winds down.

Sutherland is very good on the intricacies of an arms deal and the horrors of a civil war, where your enemy may be a 12-year-old with an automatic weapon. He is less successful in dealing with Rourke's family disasters. Having contrived to place them all in the civil war, he tries to give us tragedy, guilt and resurrection. Although the effort is ambitious, I think that in reaching for depth he has overreached, but there remains much to admire about the novel. Sutherland does not preach about the arms trade, but Rourke is painfully aware that he has himself sold the arms that threaten his loved ones. And when Rourke learns the truth about the undercover operation he has been part of, the U.S. intelligence agencies that pull its strings prove to have been no more responsible than one of those 12-year-olds with a Kalashnikov.