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L.a. Confidential

BLACKOUT By John J. Nance; Putnam: 436 pp., $23.95

FREE FALL By Kyle Mills; Harper Colins: 400 pp., $25

EASY PREY By John Sandford; Putnam: 352 pp., $25.95

April 16, 2000|EUGEN WEBER

Talk about suspense! This one's a humdinger. In John Nance's "Blackout," a passenger jet crashes at the outset while flying over the Gulf of Mexico, then soon another jet goes down after it flies out of Hong Kong. Terrorists may be using some new secret weapon that endangers air traffic everywhere. The world goes on mayhem watch. The media go ballistic. The public panics. Government agencies mobilize to identify and eliminate the threat. Is it economic or political blackmail? Or is the government covering something up?

Embroiled in the mystery and trying to unravel its tangled skein are a reporter, Robert MacCabe, and an FBI agent, Kat Bronsky, both gutsy and resourceful, both blundering through lurking dangers, both at a loss most of the time. They face more perils than Pauline ever imagined, and their harassed probes skid from one death trap to another. Whom can they trust when moles seem to have burrowed into government agencies, when hazards dog their steps and deception rules the air waves?

In counterpoint to these deadly conundrums, we pant through the plight of a plane imperiled when a hideously bright flash of light kills one of the pilots and leaves the other blinded and in excruciating pain, forced to rely on passenger volunteers who picked up flying experience from computer simulation programs. Since "Blackout" is an aviation thriller (and a damn good one), that hair-raising experience gets a lot of anxious pages, and so do other travails in air and on the ground, where every kind of motorized transport and electronic device is pressed into service. The thrills come thick and fast, skin-of-the-teeth escapes run riot, relentless high stakes devilry traces a trail of corpses, roguery on a rampage dogs Bronsky and MacCabe.

But readers can rest easy. True to the laws of the genre, they triumph in the end. What was it Oscar Wilde once said? "The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means." Nance is a superb fictioneer.

Now, on to the next, "Free Fall": The FBI has been busy again, this time bending the law, whittling privacy, serving masters who don't coincide with the taxpayers they're supposed to work for. And Mark Beamon, the maverick agent who actually did the job he was supposed to do, is in deep excrement as a result, set up as the fall guy for foul play within and without the bureau. So is a tough young woman rock climber, Darby Moore, wrongly accused of the brutal murder of a friend and climbing comrade, Tristan Newberry, a silly young man who came on some old FBI files from Edgar Hoover's day that incriminate sexually challenged political personalities. They made Newberry first a target and then a bloody corpse.

Kyle Mills' men are mostly loons or brutes; his women are sensible, or at least less demented than the men folk. Also less corrupt. But then, "Free Fall" may be particularly rife with twisted characters because it unreels in election time; the gentlemen who vie for the presidency are either open to blackmail, based on Tristan's files, or trying to grab the hoary evidence to wipe out their rivals.

David Hallorin comes under the latter heading. Ambitious, vastly wealthy, implacable, commanding, Hallorin, the third-party candidate, is panting for a leg up; his cat'spaw assistant is more ruthless still. Hacking their way toward the White House, the two will stop at nothing. Money is no object, carnage no obstacle. Which means that, when not bamboozling the great American public, Hallorin's campaign accommodates liquidating Tristan, hunting down Moore, hiring and later stalking Beamon, who first tracks Moore and then sides with her when he realizes that she's as much a fall gal as he is a guy.

Because Moore is a world-class mountain climber, much of the action and many of its casualties involve rocks and crags folk. But cliffhanging also provides a metaphor for this treacherous, fast-moving yarn full of crumbling footholds, close shaves, narrow escapes, slippery slopes and daredevil risk takers. The action is breathless, the huggermugger compelling, the conclusion improbable. But one can't complain that it strains belief when mysteries by their nature invite suspension of disbelief.

No feebs [of the FBI] for John Sandford; just cops in all their glory and fallibilities. "Easy Prey" is about the murder of a celebrity in an exotic locale. A famous fashion model, Alie'e Maison (a name to strike terror in a printer's breast), has been strangled at a swish Minneapolis dance-drinks-and-drugs party. That makes the crime (a double homicide) a big media event and propels the police investigation in the twin cities and their environs into overdrive.

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