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IN BRIEF

Fiction

July 28, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS

RED MERCURY by Max Barclay (Dove Books: $22.95, 398 pp.) The Olympic Games in Atlanta this summer are only a sideshow, Max Barclay tells us in this thriller about a mad nuclear scientist's plot to surpass the havoc Black September terrorists wrought at the Munich Games in 1972. While the athletes run and jump, the real Olympics will take place behind the scenes. It will involve more people--25,000 members of 55 law enforcement and defense agencies--probably cost more money and require training at least as arduous. Yet will this be enough to prevent an evil genius like Quinn Lazare from smuggling a "pure fusion" bomb through the security cordon? Especially one made from red mercury, a mythical substance filched from the wreckage of the Soviet nuclear program, capable of producing a Nagasaki-size explosion from a package "no bigger than a football"? Can even Mack McFall, brilliant leader of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, counter such a threat?

Barclay (a pseudonym for Los Angeles-based writer Ben Sherwood) has aimed this novel squarely at Tom Clancy fans. His research into the organization and technology of the U.S. security apparatus is mind-boggling; his characters are cartoons. So what else is new? The chess game between Lazare and McFall is certainly suspenseful. Nagging questions crop up, however. Are the Olympics really worth so much fuss and bother? Is all this security a cure or a disease? Isn't McFall, whose career as a bomb designer has been untroubled by doubts--"It's a reflex. I don't question it. I just do it. It's who I am"--almost as scary a person as Lazare? We can imagine that the government folks who fed Barclay information figured that "Red Mercury" would alarm the public enough to justify even greater expenditures on counter-terrorism--more elite teams, more gizmos. This may backfire. If the novel makes us glad we're not in Atlanta, it's less because we're afraid of the bad guys than because we're uneasy knowing that Big Brother is watching us through so many beady bionic eyes.

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