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The Thrill Is Back: New Generation of Novelists Rejuvenates a Genre

April 02, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Boeing 747 leaves Kennedy Airport for London. As it heads east, an Islamic terrorist is waiting in a boat off the south shore of Long Island. He lifts a long canister onto his shoulder, locks on to the approaching jet and fires a roaring missile into the sky. Seconds later, it hits, sending more than 250 passengers to their deaths.

So begins Daniel Silva's "The Mark of the Assassin," the second national bestseller from a writer who is bringing new life to the international thriller, a long-established and highly commercial genre that appears in need of fresh talent. Silva, who first scored last year with "The Unlikely Spy," now in Fawcett Crest paperback, weaves a globe-hopping plot in his new novel from Villard.

The story involves a sinister industrialist with close ties to the president, a dogged reporter for the Washington Post and a CIA counterterrorism officer who recognizes early on that the downing of Flight 002 bears the mark of an assassin other than the Stinger-wielding killer lurking at sea.

Sure, Silva says, his opening scene was inspired by the TWA Flight 800 tragedy off Long Island two years ago. However, he believes the real-life episode resulted from an accident, which is also the official view, and used the crash as a means to set in page-zipping motion characters he already had conceived.

"I was drawn to this kind of material because I was weaned on it," said Silva, 37, a former executive producer of CNN's Washington-based political shows. "My parents were big thriller readers, so I was reading espionage thrillers, all kinds of thrillers, at a young age--Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton, John le Carre. . . . It's a world in which anything is possible and betrayal is common."

The opportunity for Silva and other newcomers is that the genre, which traditionally offers an almost majestic sense of evil and duplicity on a global scale, needs new material. Forsyth, author of "The Day of the Jackal" and other classics, announced at age 59 last fall that he has retired, because there are no more plot lines that interest him now that the Cold War is over. Robert Ludlum, 70, another giant of the genre, last fall brought out "The Matarese Countdown," his first thriller in two years, and said it might be longer still before he finished his next book because he wanted to relax more at his Florida home.

In their absence, the broad thriller category can be sliced and split into numerous subsets--from technothrillers (Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts) to medical thrillers (Robin Cook and Michael Palmer), legal thrillers (John Grisham and Scott Turow), the airborne thrillers of John J. Nance, the scientifically charged thrillers of Michael Crichton, and the literary spy thrillers of Le Carre.

Amazon.com, the online bookseller, notes that readers who have bought "The Mark of the Assassin" also have purchased Nance's "The Last Hostage" (Doubleday) and Joseph Finder's "High Crimes" (Morrow), a new novel about a lawyer's effort to defend her husband against stunning charges that he once massacred civilians in San Salvador.

Silva acknowledges his influences: "What I wanted to do, very consciously, was combine the high-speed action and the tautly written thriller of the MacLean and Forysth type, with a little of Le Carre and Deighton--to blend the thriller traditions into my own style."

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Besides Silva, other fresh storytellers who have worked in international waters, so to speak, include Christopher Reich, David Baldacci (to some degree) and David Ignatius, all of whom amassed personal experiences that have enriched their books.

Reich tapped his own stint working for a Swiss bank in Geneva and Zurich to write his debut novel, "Numbered Account" (Delacorte), in which a young man immerses himself in the hush-hush world of Swiss finance to learn who murdered his father years earlier. The book will mark its sixth week Sunday on the New York Times' national bestseller list.

Baldacci, who was then practicing law in Washington, broke through in 1996 for Warner Books with his first novel, "Absolute Power" (the book, about the murder of the president's mistress, became a Clint Eastwood movie). The author succeeded again with "Total Control" (due to be a CBS miniseries) and "The Winner," which spent 14 weeks on the the New York Times' list before slipping off last month.

Ignatius, a former foreign correspondent and now an editor at the Washington Post, set his fourth novel, last year's "A Firing Offense" (Random House), in the cutthroat world of international commerce, as it is scoped out by a reporter for a New York paper. The book, which sold modestly, was acquired for the screen by Tom Cruise in a deal reportedly worth $1.1 million.

In addition, Villard has announced an ambitious first printing of 75,000 copies for Boston lawyer Sabin Willett's "The Betrayal," an international thriller involving a U.S. trade official that will be published in July.

"The challenge is to get consumers and booksellers excited about the post-Cold War thriller, whether it's 'pulpy' or literate," said Irwyn Applebaum, president of Bantam Books, which publishes Ludlum and Forsyth. "There are not a lot of folks who are writing that traditional thriller anymore.

"It's hard to find villains who are believable enough. . . . Some of it, perhaps, is a natural vacuum we have--we say there is a shortage of heroes, but there's a shortage of villains as well. It's easy to hate Saddam Hussein, but how many plots can a thriller writer hatch around him? There was a curiosity about the old Soviet spy game, but the chaos we hear about in the Russia of today lacks the same kind of wallop."

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Thursdays.

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