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NO SAFE PLACE.\o7 By Richard North Patterson (Alfred A. Knopf: 492 pp., $25.95)\f7

September 13, 1998|JONATHAN S. SHAPIRO | Jonathan S. Shapiro is a federal prosecutor and adjunct law professor at USC. The views expressed here do not reflect those of any government office or agency

An abortion clinic is hardly a safe place to begin a thriller. Yet in his new book, "No Safe Place," Richard North Patterson isn't afraid to tackle tough subjects. Almost every conceivable current domestic issue is addressed here: abortion, gun control, spousal abuse, affirmative action, immigration, tobacco litigation. Indeed, all the book seems to do is to try to tackle tough subjects.

In 2000, Sean Burke, lunatic, walks into a Boston abortion clinic. Despite pro-life leanings, Burke promptly murders a doctor, a nurse and a patient. He then flees to San Francisco, bent on assassinating New Jersey senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kerry Kilcannon.

Kilcannon is in the midst of a hotly contested California primary that will decide whether he or incumbent Democratic Vice President Dick Mason will carry the party's hopes in the general election. References to real people populate these pages (Jerry Brown, Gary Hart, Michael Eisner and Bruce Springsteen), yet the senior U.S. senator from California is a woman named Betsy Shapiro, not Dianne Feinstein. Why Burke wants to assassinate Kilcannon, who is less of an abortion rights advocate than his opponent, is the mystery at the center of the book. However, I thought the real mystery was how Mason and Kilcannon managed to campaign for the presidential nomination without having to spend a moment fund-raising.

The late Alan Drury used to write terrific political thrillers like this. Those books now seem quaint because no one in this day and age would dare make a politician the hero of a book. To his credit, Patterson has tried to create a likable politician in Kilcannon, who is a heroic, working-class Kennedy composite, but with a conscience. (Of course, this is not new ground for Patterson. He killed off Kilcannon's older brother Jamie, also a U.S. senator running for president, in an earlier book, "Private Screening.") Yes, he cheats on his wife--but only once, only after his marriage was doomed, and he feels bad about it afterward. Still, if the younger Kilcannon is too good to be true--intelligent, unwilling to compromise, courageous, hunky, "a decent man in a complex world"--he somehow manages to be refreshing.

Other characters do not come off so well. Kilcannon's war room is composed of loads of stock characters: the cynical media consultant; the tough-as-nails spokeswoman; the ultra-loyal campaign manager. There is the overly ambitious magazine reporter who could destroy the candidate but wonders whether it would be the right thing to do. The horny and hungry boys and girls on the bus, wisecracking their way through campaign events, exchange tired observations on the media and why Americans hate politics.

This often comes at the expense of telling a good or coherent story, so unless your idea of fun is watching reruns of "The McLaughlin Group," this may not be for you. Trying to follow the plot through endless policy debates among Kilcannon's handlers certainly isn't easy. Along with addressing big issues, Patterson is also eager to tell the entire story of Kilcannon's career. All of it. With more flashbacks than a Grateful Dead fan, the book details the rise of Kilcannon, from his youth, through law school and his early career as a rough-and-tough young prosecutor and on to the Senate. Along the way, Kilcannon enters into an unhappy marriage, alienates his bosses in the district attorney's office, becomes good friends with an African American colleague and has a fleeting though meaningful affair with Lara Costello, a television reporter who must choose between her career and Kilcannon. A smart girl, Costello chooses her career, though with tragic consequences for her, Kilcannon and their unborn child. You get so lost in the convoluted back story that you have to remind yourself that somewhere in California, a madman named Burke is trying to kill the candidate.

In his acknowledgments, Patterson thanks a ton of pundits and politicians for helping him write the book: from George Stephanopoulos to Bob Dole, Defense Secretary William Cohen and even feminist writer Naomi Wolfe. Like Kilcannon, Patterson is certainly ambitious. Few thrillers touch upon such real and serious matters. Fewer still attempt to detail the history of their characters with such deadening thoroughness. The book is full of cliches, slogans and prattle, but at least it does a nice job reflecting one fact: Most campaigns are not that much fun to follow. This one is no exception.

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