An FBI agent watching 50 cases of government-issued M-16s being unloaded in a warehouse in the south Bronx is discovered and gunned down by men wearing jackets with small American flags sewn on their sleeves.
The time is the near future, and the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and other elements of the extreme right have banded together for what they deem a patriotic cause: to overthrow the liberal-leaning United States government.
Calling the shots is the Committee, an elite group of highly placed business and government leaders, including the chairman of the nation's largest defense contractor aswell as a popular television evangelist and the director of the CIA.
Amazingly, there have been no leaks, and not even a hint of the subversive plot has surfaced in the media.
But a free-lance journalist doing an undercover investigation of a meeting of American Nazis in Louisiana is missing, and her lover, a reporter for the New York Times, has gone down to investigate. . . .
Thus the stage is set for "American Reich," (Berkley-Charter Books, $3.95), a fast-paced paperback suspense novel billed by the publisher as "the most riveting thriller since 'Seven Days in May.' "
An extremist plot to overthrow the United States government is an intriguing premise, one that novelist Douglas Muir pulls off with considerable aplomb. But just how plausible is it?
Seated in the living room of his Newport Beach apartment, the film maker-turned-novelist couldn't resist chuckling.
"Ludicrous is too strong a word," said Muir. "No, it couldn't happen. There aren't enough of them; numerically it's impossible. But as for the philosophy and hate that some of these groups represent, who knows? The danger is who knows how they might erode away our national fiber?"
However far-fetched the plot of "American Reich" may be, there's no denying the novel is bound to generate controversy.
Muir, in fact, already has discovered that even the book's cover, which features the United States seal with a Nazi swastika on top, is capable of arousing passion.
A few weeks ago, Muir discovered that all the copies of "American Reich" at his local grocery store had been moved from the front of the bookstand to the back. And when he returned to the market recently, he found that someone had placed pieces of paper over all of his books' covers.
"It bothers me when I see the books shifted around on the shelves or hidden," Muir said. "I just wish people would read the book before arriving at any conclusions."
Despite the book's volatile ingredients, Muir, who describes himself as politically independent and a moderate, insists he didn't try to write a controversial novel.
"My goal is really to give someone a pleasant evening's read, not to politicize," he said. "I'm hoping there is something in 'American Reich' for every political persuasion."
Although he says his primary goal is entertainment, Muir acknowledges that his background in making documentary and educational films "can't help but be a strong influence in any project I undertake and, hopefully, I've put a little learning experience in 'American Reich' as well as a few thrills."
Saying his novel "explores the connections between people and events," Muir observes that "too often individuals who believe in absolutes lose their humanity and become monsters. Perhaps the real truth lies in the interstices--the gray areas between conflicting absolutes."
"American Reich," which debuted in November and has a first printing of 227,000 copies, is the first installment of a three-book package Muir has written for the New York-based Putnam's-Berkley Publishing Group.
"Bolshoi," a political thriller about the defection of the Russian chairman's ballet-dancer son to the West before a Politburo coup, will be published next fall; it will be followed by "Armada," a World War II suspense novel about an American submarine commander and his German counterpart.
At 53, Muir finds himself successfully embarked on a brand new career as a novelist.
It's a longtime dream in the making. But his mid-life career change finds Muir filled with feelings of insecurity, despite a total of $40,000 in advances for the three novels and an "above average" percentage in royalties.
"It's one of the most frightening things I've done, to gamble at this point in my life," admitted Muir, sipping a mug of coffee and gazing out an open sliding glass door toward the ocean. "At a time in your life when you should be planning for retirement and worrying about pension plans, it's difficult to be adventurous.
Crossing a Threshhold
"But I know I can't give up now. I'm crossing a very important threshold. At the same time, it is frightening. It's much different than receiving a paycheck every two weeks. There are so few novelists who can really make a living by writing fiction."