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From CIA Plot to Poison Wet Suit

January 17, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

The thrillers of William F. Buck ley Jr. are political advocacy continued on alternate routes. Mongoose, R.I.P. celebrates, if that's the word, Buckley's loathing for the life and works of Fidel Castro, who is presented as a lecherous murderer. Blackford Oates, Buckley's recidivist hero and master of disguise, is deeply involved in Mongoose, the CIA plots to assassinate Castro, one involving a poisoned wet suit, another a poison-bearing hooker. Real people and real events (the wet suit and the hooker were evidently actual ploys) are interspersed with fiction in the author's flat, pedantic prose. The time frame is from the Cuban missile crisis to the Kennedy assassination. Buckley's affection for Kennedy is as clear as his contempt for Castro.

Buckley does write with authority, and there is no substitute for it, as you realize reading Paul Bishop's grittily, bawdily authentic police procedural Citadel Run. The English-born Bishop is an LAPD detective working the West Valley, and like Joe Wambaugh, of whom he seems the closest equivalent yet, he gets the detailing just right.

His central figures are Calico Jack Walker, a veteran sweating out retirement, and his rookie partner, a Japanese woman named Tina Tamiko. The plot involves an illicit cop-car drag race, Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back before the shift is over. The Las Vegas turnaround gets entwined by a major casino-robbery caper. Like Wambaugh, Bishop has a flair for black comedy and for creating police who are very good and very bad and very human. Amazingly, "Citadel Run" is a first novel; it could hardly be better.

Robin Cook was a Boston eye surgeon before he started writing novels ("Coma," etc.) in 1976. His storytelling is usually sited in the shock waves just ahead of the leading edge of medicine. In Mortal Fear, an eccentric old geneticist has died, and Cook's protagonist, Dr. Jason Hunter, has no doubt it was murder. The geneticist had been on to Something Big (also Something Bad, as things turn out in the lab sometimes). Hunter's pursuits lead into Boston's Combat Zone and down a white-water river at night in the Northwest. Subsidiary characters include a very brainy topless dancer. The dread secret could as well be Hitchcock's imaginary MacGuffin, but getting there is all the fun.

Charles Brandt has been a prosecuting attorney and is currently president of the Delaware Trial Lawyers Assn. When he introduces ex-cop Lou Razzi, long exiled in Brazil after a bum rap, back to the later world of the Miranda decision and, indeed, The Right to Remain Silent, there is simply no doubt the author speaks authoritatively. Not so incidentally, there is police-civic-political corruption on a scale to rival Hammett's "Red Harvest." The writing is not fancy, which is to say it does not get in the way of a head-long tale.

Genres grow ever-harder to define tidily. Peter Abrahams' Hard Rain is a suspenseful mystery-thriller with a plot whose origins lie in something that went down at Woodstock 20 years ago. Abrahams' heroine, Jessie Shapiro, gets rightly alarmed when her ex-husband doesn't bring back their daughter after his weekend of custody. How can it possibly be related (the reader wonders) to the evidently brain-damaged and obviously lethal creature who calls himself Bao Dai? Clues, thin but credible, lead Jessie on a wild tour of New England where a senator (it is a bad month for senators) joins the cast. Jessie is a fine and gutsy woman, and Abrahams keeps her in intimate and sympathetic focus through breakneck happenings. A top-rank adventure.

In the unlikely event John LeCarre and Ross Thomas were to collaborate, the product might well resemble Ted Allbeury's The Judas Factor. I see from the dust-jacket that I am not the first local to admire him ("A master of the genre"--L.A. Times). It is the spy genre, bless its inexhaustible heart, headquartered in London where most of the best of the genre seems to begin. Tad Anders is an ex-operative reduced to fronting a sleazy sex club in Soho (slight shades of Ross Thomas), which is partially subsidized by the Old Firm as both a safe house and a consolation prize to Anders, out to pasture as a troublesome maverick.

He is re-recruited for a dangerous mission in East Berlin, kidnaping an assassin to try to learn just how dirty the Reds intend to play. (Slight echoes of "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold".) Anders is betrayed, tortured, released in a prisoner swap and re-acquainted with the assassin in Britain. The tone is sardonic, the steely goings-on touched with irony and a LeCarrean sense that spies are mirror images of each other. Economical, atmospheric, excellent.

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