AFTER THE RAIN

By Chuck Logan

HarperCollins. 416 pp. $24.95

Ever since the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 anxious Americans have asked what form the next terrorist attack will take. Our leaders issue self-serving alerts (if an attack comes, they warned us; if it doesn't come, they saved us) and our enemies bide their time. Meanwhile, novelists, helpful fellows always, offer doomsday scenarios. In last year's "The Teeth of the Tiger," Tom Clancy smuggled terrorists across the Mexican border and sent them into the heartland to shoot up shopping malls. In Vince Flynn's recent "Memorial Day," the bad guys delivered nuclear weapons by boat to the Charleston harbor, and then took them by truck to New York and Washington. Now, in Chuck Logan's hard-edged and gripping "After the Rain," Middle Eastern terrorists slip a suitcase-size Russian-made nuclear device over the Canadian border into North Dakota, where they intend to use it to trigger an explosion that will kill tens of thousands of Americans and leave much of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa uninhabitable for 300 years.

Our primary line of defense against this catastrophe is the estranged husband-and-wife team of Phil Broker and Nina Pryce, who return from Logan's previous novels. Broker, a Vietnam veteran like the author, has spent recent years as an undercover cop in Minnesota. Pryce is a professional soldier ("first female to be awarded the Combat Infantryman's Badge") who holds the rank of major and in this novel is part of a covert, no-rules, no-records anti-terrorism operation. At the outset, she and two colleagues kidnap a Saudi moneyman in Detroit. Pryce devises a fiendish feminist torture, unrepeatable here, that persuades the Saudi to tell all he knows: that in Langdon, N.D., someone named Shuster is part of a plot to smuggle a nuclear device into the United States. Not trusting the "suits" in Washington to act decisively, Pryce and her colleagues set off for Langdon, where they focus on Ace Shuster, a hard-drinking, handsome, rather likable ex-con who runs a bar and smuggles whiskey into Canada.

Pryce, sexily clad and with her young daughter in tow, turns up at the bar and passes herself off as an angry woman on the run from her husband. She begins a flirtation with Shuster that soon has her wondering if, to penetrate the nuclear plot, she is willing to sleep with one of the plotters. Shuster is genial enough, but he's surrounded by some scary characters: his creepy brother Dale, his thuggish sidekick Gordy, and a sinister Native American who calls himself Joe. We soon see that, by using herself as bait, Pryce is risking more than a voluntary tumble with Shuster. One of the men fantasizes: "As this sensation shuddered inside his bulk his gaze dripped down over her body like greasy water, gathering in her hollows, racing over her curves, marking every detail. Her strong body promised a lot of struggle." Pryce, proud, stubborn and dedicated to the mission, ignores the dangers.

The terrorist plot unfolds, directed by a Lebanese sleeper agent in the United States who relishes the vision of Americans suffering as he and his countrymen have: "But 9/11 got their attention. Though they still didn't really understand. That now it was their turn. For decades they had channel-surfed over mass graves filled with Rwandans, Bosnians, Chechens. A million Afghans. Now viewers in the Middle East would get to recline in their living rooms and watch Americans fester and die slowly on satellite TV for a change. Just like the children in the camps. Or burn fast, like his parents, like his own baby and his wife, who met their end in the Israeli napalm." As we feared, Pryce is taken prisoner. Her estranged husband, Broker, hurries to North Dakota to protect his daughter, find his wife and join the hunt for the nuclear plotters.

In telling all this, Logan does many things well. The beauty and desolation of North Dakota are palpable. The characters are sharply drawn and often surprising, the story is suspenseful, the dialogue is crisp. The nuclear plot is ingenious and its final countdown is a nail-biter. And Pryce is surely one of the more formidable women in current fiction. At one point, drugged, spread-eagled, bound hand and foot, she manages to work one arm free, whereupon she seizes her tormentor, "reached down deep to where the lizard lived," and "tore out his throat" with her teeth until he bleeds to death. I think I had a blind date with this woman once.

The weaknesses of "After the Rain" are the weaknesses of the genre: We're scared, but we're still confident that the very worst will not occur, as it tends to in real life. In terms of terrorism thrillers, "After the Rain" lacks the depth of those of the very first rank, such as Frederick Forsyth's "The Day of the Jackal" or Thomas Harris's "Black Sunday," but it is miles ahead of the Clancy and Flynn novels mentioned earlier. Logan's writing recalls that of Robert Crais and John Sandford, among today's popular novelists. In fact, Sandford (real name: John Camp) and Logan were colleagues at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Sandford encouraged his writing career. Logan's five previous novels, including "Vapor Trail" and "Absolute Zero," have given him a cult following. If you're looking for tough-minded, no-nonsense accounts of crime and terrorism, he's well worth checking out.