A U.S. nuclear weapon is missing from a stockpile in West Germany. A terrorist group claims possession of the device and threatens to detonate it if all American nuclear weapons are not withdrawn from Europe within 72 hours. While a frantic search is mounted in Europe for the device, mutual suspicion and internal power struggles surrounding the incident push the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.
The preceding synopsis should be familiar to devotees of the spy-thriller genre of popular fiction. The combination of irrational terrorist fanatics and the destructive power of even a small-yield nuclear device has become a favorite story line. David Aaron's "State Scarlet" is a well-crafted variation on this lucrative theme, especially considering that it is the author's first novel.
If "State Scarlet's" plot is conventional, however, its author certainly is not, and the work's publication may herald the birth of a new fictional minispecies: the national security specialist novel. Aaron served as President Carter's deputy assistant for national security affairs, and no one in Washington will believe, as the release blurb claims, that he wrote "State Scarlet" solely "as therapy while working on Wall Street." The recent resignation of Richard Perle, the assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, to devote his time to writing a novel seems to confirm a trend.
"State Scarlet" meets most of the criteria for a thriller. Pacing is its major strength. The entire episode lasts only 72 hours and Aaron graphically portrays the stress of decision-time compression upon the major characters. The author maintains the pace by using flashbacks only sparingly, placing them in his story with a deft hand to lay the groundwork for the reader.
There are a few weak spots in the book. All of Aaron's villains owe their malcontent to their mother's sexual conduct in one way or another. This Freudian revival is not without some interest, but three villains conspiring to steal a nuclear weapon for the same psycho-sexual reason tends to stretch coincidence a bit too far. The novel's major flaw is not here, however, but in its ending, always tricky--and crucial--in a thriller. Suffice it to say that Aaron arrives at the final manic sequence of events a bit more breathless and excited than his readers are likely to be.
That defect aside, Aaron's book offers the reader more enjoyment than usual in the hunt for political commentary, policy critique and (the most fun, of course,) technical mistakes. The author is quite partisan, having the President's NSC adviser comment concerning arms control in Europe: "Yes, it's complicated. If it was easy, Ronald Reagan would have done it." In fact, Reagan is to blame for polarizing the nation to such an extent that he is succeeded by a former network news anchorman, with only four years of experience in the Senate, who forms a government of "national reconciliation" that is then paralyzed by bureaucratic infighting.
In fairness, it should be noted that Carter is also criticized by name in "State Scarlet." Most of the other characters in official positions seem to be composites or familiar Washington types, such as NSC Adviser Karl Loggermann--the quintessential hawkish ideologue. The major exception is a secretary of state who talks like Gary Hart and is bureaucratically destroyed by the Machiavellian Loggermann.
The major policy point Aaron wants to make is also the heart of his plot. The loss of control over a nuclear weapon has the potential to trigger the type of war neither Superpower wants to fight: a central strategic exchange. The Soviets would prefer to conduct a rapid conventional conquest of Western Europe, while the United States would prefer to defend vital Eurasian territory with high-tech conventional weapons if possible and tactical nuclear weapons if necessary. Aaron's warning is that preferences and strategies are useless and dangerous in the face of a nuclear-armed independent third party, and that the absurd levels of nuclear armaments greatly increase the chances of loss of control over some fraction of the arsenal.