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OMERTA; By Mario Puzo; Random House: 316 pp., $25.95

SPYTIME The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton; By William F. Buckley Jr.; Harcourt: 320 pp., $25

HOT SPRINGS; By Stephen Hunter; Simon & Schuster: 475 pp., $25

August 20, 2000|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author, most recently, of "Apocalypses."

It would be nice if members of the criminous classes limited their attentions to one another; if gang bangs and drive-by shootings affected no innocent bystanders and lawbreakers exterminated one another under some rule of mutually assured destruction. It doesn't work that way, worse luck. But Mafia operations offer an approximation of that ideal: at least as represented in the novels of Mario Puzo, in which characters live, love, guzzle, plot, rob, defraud, murder, torture and firebomb in a discrete world of their own, in which agencies of law and of lawlessness are interconnected and little else intrudes.

Puzo died in 1999, but the last of his Mafia novels, "Omerta," offers the mixture as before, and addicts won't be disappointed. Well, a little. Style was never Puzo's strong suit, but here the writing is more flat-footed than ever, closer to a shooting script interspersed with sage comments on how to attain respect, retain honor, diddle your enemies or rub them out.

"Omerta" refers to a code of silence observed by Mafiosi and their associates, who settle disputes among themselves. That's what the story turns on: conflicts concluded by conciliation or termination of the parties.

That makes it straightforward, clear and easy to read or skip while waiting for the next shootout. And because the text does nothing to threaten the self-esteem of Italian Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, women or opponents of capital punishment, it should prove a strong candidate for a successful movie.

Suspense falters in William Buckley's "Spytime." James Jesus Angleton is the counterintelligence spymaster to end all spymasters. Deception, betrayal, stealth, pursuit are his stock in trade: Soviet spies, British traitors, moles and defectors of every kind are his fodder or his prey. Buckley canters through a career that begins with teenage shuttling between an English school and an American father's villa near Milan, continues when the young man is sent under deep cover to join the partisans in war-torn Italy, then roams through 30 years worth of Cold War skulduggery: Bay of Pigs, Berlin, Cuba, Lebanon, Vietnam, a lot of meals, a lot of drinks, a lot of sex.

The more foes James Jesus hunts, the more he scents: Information conceals disinformation, calculation spins into self-deception, professional suspicion turns crankish, revealing Gen. George Marshall to be a Communist sympathizer and the likes of Averell Harrimann, Armand Hammer and Olof Palme to be Soviet agents. The director of the CIA who finally fires him as a loyalty risk turns out a traitor too. Self-duped and self-deceived, the chief of U.S. Counterintelligence has lost all perspective. Chopping every logic, querying every question, doubting every doubt has driven Angleton barking barmy. "God help America," he thinks in the book's last line; and who knows but that he may be right.

Despite an inept blurb, Stephen Hunter really is a master of the tough thriller, and "Hot Springs" really is relentlessly violent, brutal and readable. It is about post-World War II America, full of returned veterans and pols on the make, of mobsters and molls, of unself-conscious knee-jerk racists and cops cheaply bought; full of decent folk too, God-fearing, hard-drinking male supremacists as ready to reach for a gun as for a fifth of Bourbon.

It is 1946, and Fred Becker, the self-serving newly elected prosecuting attorney of Garland County, enlists a fearless ex-Marine to lead a ruthless campaign against gangster-gamblers in Hot Springs, Ark. Across the country, Bugsy Siegel is sinking millions into the Nevada desert to create Las Vegas. Owney Maddox, king of Hot Springs, master of its police, judges, casinos, nightclubs, whorehouses and bathhouses, is entering a collision course with Siegel. Earl Swaggart, the Marine, won the Medal of honor on Iwo Jima. Now he is supposed to boot Owney out of his kingdom and provide Becker with the unearned fame that will make him governor of the state. Hot Springs will be swept by alarms, raids and bloody ambushes, while ignorant armies clash by night and Earl's team is decimated.

But, despite gangsters, corrupt lawmen, a dodgy double-crossing boss and his own ghosts, Earl's tough integrity will see him through. Becker's perfidiousness will earn no brownie points this time round. But Arkansas is a fine springboard for shifty politicians, and Becker may get to Little Rock yet. Then, why not to the White House?

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