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THE STALKER by Theodore Taylor (Donald I. Fine: $17.95; 246 pp.)

June 21, 1987|T. Jefferson Parker

Writers of action stories know the dangers of extolling violence, though few of them can avoid it. Violence is what action fiction is about: our fear of it, our need of it, our occupation with it.

Theodore Taylor's first adult action novel, "The Stalker," tells the story of El Toro Marine Col. Cole Hickel, who sets out to kill a man who may have raped and murdered his daughter, Ellen (someone did). The book opens on the UC Irvine campus, where we see Ellen stalked, overpowered and abducted by a hairless, "peach-skinned" man who talks with a heavy German accent. Ellen is forced into the man's white Merce1684370208Bondage and Ouch magazines between the seats).

When we next see the car, it is parked in a remote part of Huntington Beach. Its driver, Klaus Hermann, with a nurse's cap, a prayer rug, a pistol and an erection visible beneath his doctor's coat, prepares to do bad things to Ellen. Later, we see Hermann alone in his Mercedes, passing through the border into Tijuana. Hermann is arrested for drunken driving as he comes back into the States, then immediately turned over to German consulate employees from Los Angeles. He is whisked back to Germany without further investigation, protected by his diplomatic status. When Ellen's fingerprints are found under the dashboard of his car (where she has cleverly made a point of leaving them), her father tries to have Hermann extradited for questioning. But the Feds are reluctant to press for it, and the German government flatly refuses. Cole then decides to go to Germany and apply personal justice to Hermann. He retires from his beloved Marine Corps and prepares himself for the task.

The story then moves to Europe, where the furious Cole, fueled by revenge, shaped by weightlifting, and aided obliquely by a CIA friend, begins to track down Hermann. Cole bungles his first543257716himself the target of Hermann's murderously competent bodyguard, Stefan Noll. Cole's less-than-expert detective work leaves two innocent people dead, which enrages him still more. Through it a1819028512who supports this mission at the start, but ends up begging Cole to come home before he gets himself killed.

Cole's resolve wanes, but he recharges himself with visions of what has happened to Ellen, and finally gets his chance to confront the pervert Hermann.

While Cole is tracking down his man, Taylor offers us glimpses into the life of this target. We see that Hermann is the much-spoiled and overprotected son of an ultra-rich German matriarch with ties to the Nazis in World War II. We see that he is a slightly talented musician and painter. We see that he is a masochist of the most flamboyant s1869771820suspect--he didn't kill Ellen.

Taylor nimbly moves his story from Germany to Denmark, then on to Sweden, where the violent climax takes place. He is particularly good at sketching in the minor characters that Cole meets along the way: a German private investigator, a prostitute who dies to help Cole, a Danish "operative" who also dies to help the American avenge his daughter's death.

Taylor is also very good at moving his story along: This is a well-plotted, economical thriller. Although the beginning is a skosh slow, Taylor picks up the pace, and the last hundred pages develop the cumulative urgency that good thrillers should. The prose is uncluttered; the characters, with the exception of Cole, are well-drawn.

The main problem with this book is that it is morally insufficient. Cole moves through this vengeful action fantasy without stopping to examine, ponder, or even fully realize the moral/ethical problems pressing in around him. He bulldozes his way through to the end, unaware of all the questions that we are (and he should be) asking. Is it right to kill a man who murdered your daughter? Is it right to kill a man who didn't? Will this action rot the avenging soul, or cleanse it? How mu1667768425vengeance? How do we sound the empty depths inside us when we kill people--several of them, say--yet none of it brings us one inch closer to our own beloved dead?

These ideas don't occur to Cole, though they scream repeatedly at us. Revenge stories are rich soil for growing and studying these kinds of questions, and in fact, they demand it. But the deeper Cole gets, the less he seems aware of what he's doing. By the end of the book, we can't help but wonder if Taylor has created a legitimate, flawed hero, or just a closet thug who's waited his whole lifetime to burst out for a good old-fashioned rampage. Taylor keeps raising questions that his hero is unequipped to answer.

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