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La Confidential

HONG KONG By Stephen Coonts; St. Martin's Press: 350 pp., $25.95

BLOOD RED RIVERS By Jean-Christophe Grange; Harvill Press: 328 pp., $26

A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON By Robert Wilson; Harcourt: 448 pp., $25

November 19, 2000|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the author, most recently, of "Apocalypses."

China Bob Chan is shot dead on Page 1 of Stephen Coonts' new thriller, behind him a magnificent view of Aberdeen Harbor--and the lights of Hong Kong flickering in the distance. A rainmaker, a wheeler-dealer who played every angle, China Bob had served the Chinese government by making political contributions in America and greasing wheels to get American export licenses for restricted technology ("All politicians are sewer rats," observes an Australian newspaperman, "not just ours"), and China Bob had pocketed about half the money. Is this a clue to his murder and to the story line to come? Not at all, but it conveys its spirit.

The premise of Coonts' improbable but titillating yarn of virtual science fiction is that our national dedication to teaching the world has inspired a billionaire high-tech executive, Virgil Cole, now U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, to help foment revolt against the Chinese government. Committed to the political status quo and unwilling to jeopardize good relations with Beijing, Washington sends Cole's old Vietnam sidekick, Jake Grafton, now a rear admiral, to sniff out the situation. Grafton's Chinese-speaking wife, Callie, accompanies him.

Communist China is a corrupt tyranny, its kleptocratic oligarchy "paranoid, cowardly, greedy, technically incompetent, and devoid of personal honor." Hong Kong is no better. The setup there is crisscrossed with gangsters, bankers and other crooks, conspirators, secret and not-so-secret agents, old dears and busybodies, some out to line their pockets, others hoping to liberate first Hong Kong, then mainland China.

As Hong Kong and the mainland come under cyber-attack from Cole's insurrectionist hackers, Chinese rockets go up in flames, land and air transportation is hamstrung by downed computer systems, electrical grids black out and telephone systems break down. Meanwhile, villains have kidnapped Callie, and gallant Grafton must pursue them and other evildoers, whom he satisfyingly massacres in the end. After all, we're told, that's what the Chinese would do: "If I can't shoot you, I'll piss in your well and strangle your mother." Better get in first.

Frightful robots 10 feet tall, developed by Cole, lead Chinese rebels to victory in Hong Kong and encourage them to carry their liberating struggle to the mainland, where the rotten Red regime, further destabilized by television images and radio news, begins to totter. As Cole strides off to fight the good fight at their side, Callie and Jake go off for a pizza. All is well.

Not so in the hidden depths of France, where the body of the head librarian at the university of Guernon (a stand-in for Grenoble, in its caldron of looming Alps) is discovered high in a rocky crevice, folded in a fetal position, horribly tortured, strangled, his eyes plucked out. Superintendent Niemans is sent down from Paris to lead the investigation. Across the country, in a small southwestern town, police lieutenant Karem Abdouf faces puzzling questions of another sort: A 10-year-old, who died in 1982, is having his identity erased--photographs, school and medical records snaffled, falsified or obliterated, his grave desecrated--for no evident reason.

Thus begins Jean-Christophe Grange's "Blood Red Rivers," and its breathless momentum carries us through the gloomy concrete campus, Alpine glaciers, dark countryside and darker secrets. More corpses, fresh and frozen, turn up. As the bleak university becomes the focus not only of carnage but of strange revelations connected with the mysterious erasure of the 10-year-old, Niemans finds a lead in the strange hatching over the last 20 years of children, genetically superior in force and intellect, born to the academic community. The parallel mysteries turn into updated Gothic horrors about genetic vampirism and hijacked identities. The blood red rivers of the title irrigate the sinister gore and dread of baroque vengeance and a creepy history of programmed mating, programmed offspring and ghoulish baby-snatching.

Grange has turned out a rip-roaring shocker that begins smashingly; skirts the spooky supernatural amid graveyards, ruins, wild landscapes and night-scapes for 300 gripping pages; and at last collapses into the macabre 18th century fantasies of Maturin and Mrs. Radcliffe. As P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster said to Jeeves after he disentangled himself from the sinister affair of Gussie Finknottle, "I have been in some tough spots in my time, but this one wins the mottled oyster."

Another time, another place. A 16-year-old schoolgirl is found on a beach near Lisbon, raped, sodomized and strangled. That's the way Robert Wilson's latest thriller opens, ushering in a steady drizzle of corpses, savagery and malfeasance and an intricacy of imbricated plots as gorily entangled as pig's guts.

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