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Inside the Tale : COVER STORY, By Robert Cullen (Atheneum: $20; 312 pp.)

July 31, 1994|John Brizzolara | John Brizzolara is a novelist, the author of "Wirecutter" and "Empire's Horizon." He is also a journalist in San Diego

In her nonfiction book, "The Journalist and the Murderer," Janet Malcolm said of journalists: "The least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living."

Well, journalism is a hard dollar. Anyone who is good and has been at it for a time will smile indulgently at phrases like "the truth" or "the public's right to know" even though they probably believe in those slippery and morally ambivalent ideals. Any reporter who has ridden the crest of a fast-breaking story or gotten a source to confirm something his competitors haven't unearthed will laugh uproariously at the idea of the fourth estate as a savvy, financial career move--but they might well describe the high the way a gambler would, using phrases such as "the juice."

Robert Cullen's new novel "Cover Story" is about Moscow, the Israelis, the CIA and an American correspondent for a weekly news magazine named Colin Burke (Pete Hamill meets James Bond) but it is mostly about journalism and "the juice."

The Middle East peace talks are breaking down again. Carter and Gorbachev are trying to dance around the fact to the press when a CNN story breaks about nuclear components disappearing from the dismantled Soviet military machinery and turning up in Syria in enough quantities to build five bombs. Burke, having been scooped by CNN, hits upon the idea that where there are Russian nuclear components, Russian scientists are likely to follow. Burke follows the money and it leads him to Syrian businessman Rafit Kassim.

Burke is very good at his job. Robert Cullen has been a journalist and reporter for more than 20 years and won the Overseas Press Club Award for his reporting in Moscow. His previous books include "Soviet Sources" and "Twilight of Empire"; fiction and nonfiction respectively. His evocation of the evil empire in ruins during the muddy Russian spring is remarkable. The sense of place is uncanny, the atmosphere of paranoia worthy of Kafka depicts a Russia so long in the habits of a bureaucracy--phone-tapping, disinformation and spy vs. spy mentality long after it serves any useful purpose--it is nearly comical. Colin Burke knows his way around well in this environment, and we get a first-class tour on his coattails.

Nothing is what it seems in this Moscow. When Burke is assigned a minor story on Soviet Jews in the aftermath of communism, it turns into a climactic confrontation between Burke and the Jews and the Russian equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. We meet Ronit Evron, the beautiful, mysterious Israeli school teacher Burke lusts after but does not trust. She leads him to a scientist named Nekronov who lives and works in a "closed city." Burke is arrested there and not for the last time in the story.

Cullen's prose is clean, transparent, workmanlike. His years as a journalist have served him well; the reader does not trip over a mannered style while unraveling this complex, convincing and thoroughly unpredictable Chinese-puzzle-box plot. (Occasionally he'll reach for a metaphor that doesn't fly: a woman with "enough wrinkles to start a raisin factory." Raymond Chandler has little to fear from Cullen.)

Cullen's dialogue is crisp and believable. Burke has a touch of the wise guy, but is all pro even as he wrings his hands with guilt and whines about his drinking in the tradition of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux.

Pavel Plotnikov is a fine creation: the middle-aged mathematician turned reporter whom we alternately trust, distrust, trust again, etc.

To say much more about the plot would not be fair to Cullen's carefully crafted thriller that partakes of both the spy novel and the detective genre. Comparisons to "Gorky Park" will be inevitable, but in many ways "Cover Story" is a superior book. What makes this novel unique is Burke's allegiance to his craft, the thing that makes him tick.

"What really terrified him, he decided, was the prospect of losing . . . something he could not quite define. It was wrapped up, he knew, in his ability to discover facts and report them. It had to do with integrity. It had to do with the knowledge that other reporters whose judgments he respected recognized those qualities in him. It was kind of dignity or sense of worth. And if he lost it, he would be left in ruins."

"Cover Story" is one of the best novels about journalism in recent memory. As a suspense novel it is first rate and as for Colin Burke, he's more than a little the worse for wear at the end of the novel, but I'd gladly visit him again.

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