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LIE DOWN WITH LIONS : by Ken Follett (Morrow: $18.95; 333 pp.)

February 16, 1986|Stuart Schoffman | Schoffman, a screenwriter, is a visiting lecturer in history at the University of Texas at Austin. and

A deadly romantic triangle with a brave and beautiful woman at its apex, a clandestine wartime mission with global stakes, a location as exotic as Tierra del Fuego. If that sounds like "Eye of the Needle," you're close. It's Ken Follett's newest spyboiler, "Lie Down With Lions," a tale no less gripping and ingenious than its ancestor, if a bit deja vu .

Ellis is the omnicompetent, boy-next-door CIA agent, a guilt-gorged Vietnam vet ("We were the terrorists then"), righting wrongs as penance for Uncle Sam; Jean-Pierre is a young left-wing French physician bent on avenging his Papa, a Communist jailed for supporting the Algerian revolution; Jane is a middle-class Brit playing the radical groupie. Back in Paris, Ellis was Jane's lover, but after she learned he was a spook, she married Jean-Pierre, who took her to the remote, primitive Five Lions Valley of Afghanistan, where he's a volunteer with a group called Medicine pour la Liberte. But, unbeknownst to Jane (now trained as a nurse), he is also spying for the Russians on the Afghan guerrillas he heals--the selfsame scattered lot of headstrong rebels whom Ellis (surprise!) has been dispatched by Washington to weld into a fighting force. Film at eleven.

There's a goodly dose of anthropology here: Jane, to raise the dramatic ante, stoically bears a baby girl in the hamlet of Banda; the doc is away, the midwife smears blue powder on her forehead to expel evil spirits (it seems to work). Jean-Pierre fears being found out by the Afghans, "the most bloodthirsty men in the world," who play a sort of polo normally involving the headless body of a calf but on occasion the live body of a foe. There's also a little quasi-feminist philosophy: " 'Men are so bloody,' " muses Jane. " 'Who told (an Afghan boy, now dead) it was his role in life to kill Russians?. . . . Not his mother.' . . . Had (Jane) come to believe that the only innocent people in this war were the mothers, the wives and the daughters on both sides?" Yes, she had; which is not, however, to deny that if one side has to win, it better be the good guys. Declares Ellis: "We need a central intelligence agency. We live in a hostile world and we need information about our enemies."

The plot, engineered to perfection, hurtles from crisis to huge moral crisis with breathless acceleration, as if a muse were chirping metronomically into Follett's ear: "Death Before Dishonor, Love vs. Duty!" The prose, unfortunately, is more the speed of Sex and Violence; it's calmly rendered on the whole but includes the occasional howler. "Don't pick a macho romantic," reflects Jane while trekking for her life over the peaks of the Hindu Kush, "if you want a man to respect you." Afflicted with the hokeyest dialogue is cartoonish Anatoly of the KGB, who helicopters the forbidding terrain, tirelessly dogging Ellis: " 'If I could have my pick of all the agents of the Western imperialistic nations to catch, I would choose him.' " And if Anatoly fails? " 'My career will simply stop. . . . No more Scotch whiskey, no more Rive Gauche for my wife, no more family holidays on the Black Sea, no more denim jeans and Rolling Stones records for my children . . . but I could live without those things.' "

As the reader--let's be candid--can easily live without subtlety. For the only game in this genre is suspense and storytelling, and by the time you realize how utterly you've been manipulated by the triumph of craft over art, it's way too late to muster a yip of serious protest. Personally, I couldn't put the book down.

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