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Book Review : A Transpacific Thriller That's All Skin and Bones

June 09, 1988|DICK LOCHTE

A California Conspiracy by Richard Lamm and Arnold Grossman (St. Martin's Press: $18.95; 231 pages)

The hero of this thin thriller is the governor of California. Not our own George Deukmejian, I hasten to add, but a dashing, handsome bachelor governor who, when he is not in the midst of affairs of state, is trysting rather torridly with a beautiful goddess of the silver screen.

His name is Terry Jordan, a name that vaguely recalls a former bachelor governor of the Golden State who was seen from time to time with ladies from the entertainment world. But all that leader had to contend with were statewide difficulties, an overeager lieutenant governor and the Medfly. Jordan's pressing issue is nothing less than the threat of world domination by a cabal of vengeful Japanese who are still rankled over this country's World War II victory.

Using the unbearably apt code name of Phoenix, these Rising Sun soreheads have been plotting the economic destruction of the U.S. economy and the supremacy of Japan's ever since Hiroshima. This entails the takeover of a California computer company that is working on a military project so advanced it will make the Star Wars defense system look like a Buck Rogers Saturday serial, if it doesn't already.

The only ones standing between Phoenix and its nefarious goal are superpol Jordan and his millionaire buddy, Warren Gleason, the CEO of the company the Phoenix Group is trying to acquire. (Jordan and Gleason have formed a little cabal of their own, with the former eyeing the White House and the latter anxious to assume the office vacated in Sacramento.)

Ex-Governor Is Co-Writer

Considering that one of "Conspiracy's" co-writers, Richard Lamm, is a former governor of Colorado, we might expect the yarn to yield a few kernels of inside information about how a state is run. What we get instead is a surprisingly naive approach to Gov. Jordan's life style on and off the job. How many governors do you know who could go for a jog along Golden Gate Bridge without attracting a paparazzo or two? And, as Jerry Brown might testify, it is practically impossible for a prominent politician to travel with a celebrity and not arouse some sort of journalistic notice.

Jordan and his gal hop to Manzanillo, Mexico, hang out on the beach at Las Hadas, snoop into a mysterious death, get mixed up in the explosion of a fishing boat. And when they jet back to the States on a Mexicana flight, the only people waiting are two security guards and his chief of staff. "This is more of a reception than I ordinarily get," Jordan comments. Before he makes his presidential bid, perhaps he should check his recognition factor.

Arnold Grossman, who has been Lamm's cohort in this "Conspiracy" and in an earlier thriller, "1988," is described as "a Denver advertising executive." Quite possibly he is responsible for some of the novel's numerous descriptive adjectives that have a Madison Avenue ring. "The rich red color of her hair," for example. Or " legendary screen idol," " spacious new hot tub," "the attractive and popular anchorwoman" and my personal favorite, " gleaming black Mercedes sedan."

Insufficient Information

Style aside, the most unique aspect of the characters is that we are given so little information about them. Where was Jordan born? Why did he become a politician? Does he have any living relatives? There is a private detective, hired by the millionaire, who accomplishes all sorts of miraculous things--like digging up a complete dossier on the Phoenix Group's activities, including the name and photograph of its head hit man. As intriguing as his adventures sound, we do not get to share them with the sleuth.

Instead, the authors have decided to present them in the form of expository conversation between the detective and his employer. This limiting of plot to its bare essentials makes for a speedy read. But not a terribly substantial one.

The result is very nearly the outline of a novel. Even if it had been fleshed out, however, this tale would still have had credibility problems. It's like a paranoid nightmare brought on by one too many Ludlum thrillers just before bedtime.

Lochte's novel, "Laughing Dog," will be published in June by Arbor House/William Morrow.

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