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Amazing Grace

FLINT A Novel By Paul Eddy; Putnam: 340 pp., $24.95

March 11, 2001|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph

One sure-fire way to guarantee interest in a work of fiction is, paradoxically, to dish out broad hints that all or most of it is based on fact. The roman a clef has always brought in extra readers. What Paul Eddy has done in "Flint" is apply this technique to the thriller. We are carefully told that his eponymous heroine, the undercover police agent Grace Flint, is drawn from three real-life agents he met while investigating American drug cartels, on which he has already established insider expertise with two nonfiction works, "The Cocaine Wars" (1988) and "Hunting Marco Polo" (1991). As he tells us, "many of the episodes in 'Flint' are based on real events, and although all of the characters are fictional, they have real-life counterparts."

That last clause sounds like a piece of doublespeak wished on him by libel lawyers, especially because one of his characters--very much involved in the action--is Rauf Denktash, president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, who wasn't fictional the last time I checked. Two of the author's French friends, Gilles and Dominique Bourdonnec, also figure in the plot, along with their actual home. Eddy's watchword throughout is authenticity.

There may be more than one reason for this. We all know that truth is often stranger than fiction, but some of the events--not to mention a great deal of the personal psychologizing--in "Flint" are truly bizarre. There is, for example, one scene in which Grace is given a series of local anesthetics by the baddies and told that a disbarred surgeon is removing her vital female organs, starting with her ovaries, until she talks. A cynic might suppose that this modus operandi was introduced, at a point when the plot suggested killing her off (she had little useful information left to reveal), simply because Eddy needed to keep his heroine alive: no plot resolution otherwise. Also, where John le Carre had one mole infiltrating the British secret service, Eddy plants potential traitors everywhere, from top to bottom of MI5, the FBI, the CIA, you name it. This of course means that Grace Flint, as part of an Anglo-American team on the trail of high-level international financial crooks, doesn't know whom she can trust, least of all on her own side. This certainly jacks up the tension.

It's only fair to state, emphatically, that "Flint," despite its oddities, is a compulsive, edge-of-the-chair, nail-biting, fast-paced, crisply written narrative. No wonder the movie rights have already sold. Eddy's horrific preface shows us a botched sting operation in which Grace and another cop confront a pair of crooks in a London stairwell, unaware that--maybe through treachery on the part of a third officer--the steel doors at both ends have been locked on them. Her colleague dies; Grace is stomped into a bloody wreck. The officer responsible, Frank Harling, vanishes (official collusion again?). After 18 months of physical reconstruction but still with a badly battered psyche, Grace gets back on the force, bent on vengeance. As a kind of curtain-raiser, we then see her and the CIA operative, Cutter, to whom she's been lent, work a sting in Miami on a money-laundering operation--which involves leaving her alone with a murderous thug who's instructed to kill her if his boss fails to return. I won't give away the denouement; suffice it to say that for five pages I almost stopped breathing.

There's a lot of such classic cliff-hanging in "Flint," but nothing to quite match this brilliant opening-round flourish. The chase moves from shady banks in the Caribbean (complex and authentic financial manipulation) to Paris (operations involving the bomb squad), Zurich (more high finance), the Netherlands and, finally, Nicosia in Cyprus, on the DMZ "green line" between Greeks and Turks. Nasty characters of both sexes come to nasty ends. Coffins turn out to have headless occupants who don't match their accompanying identity papers. Official Lear jets get bombed out of the sky. Will Grace catch up with Frank? Wait for the grisly twisted ending. The nicest character in the book is a quiet, patient ex-agent turned solicitor, Harry Cohen, who plods along, glumly affectionate, in Flint's wake, picking up the pieces, of which there are quite a few.

Grace Flint is certainly tough: She makes Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by comparison. She also suffers (one ineradicable legacy of her stomping) from appalling migraines. An Italian crook she's honeypotting drops his sexual advances after she throws up in his bathroom, tucks her in solicitously and leaves her on her own to recover (she cases the joint when she does): I was rather sorry when this kindly fellow got knocked off. On the other hand, the Psychology 101 stuff about adolescent Grace and her veterinarian father is not only phony but acutely embarrassing, a buried-memory-or-fantasy subplot involving (get this) fairly gory uxoricide, on the vet's operating table, yet. If Eddy knows what's good for him, he'll bury this nonsense forever before Grace returns (as I'm sure she will), feistier than ever, in the inevitable sequel.

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