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Novel hits hard on thriller, literary levels

Novel hits hard on thriller, literary levels

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With "The Contractor," author Colin MacKinnon has given readers more than a grabby and gutsy thriller about a plot by Islamist terrorists to detonate a nuclear bomb on American soil.

MacKinnon also has given readers a novel - a story with in-depth characters and finely tooled writing. The result presents readers with a neat mixture of suspense in the plot and pleasure at the literary level.

"The Contractor" of the title is Rick Behringer, who lives in the Washington area but travels to exotic places like Athens and Istanbul to peddle his electronic security wares. On the side, he's a tool of the CIA - a contractor for the intelligence agency. Behringer comes by the relationship naturally. After all, his father was a key CIA analyst until his mysterious suicide in the mid-1970s.

Behringer's latest chore for the CIA is to sniff around what seems to be a plot by a band of Islamist terrorists to lay hands on enriched uranium smuggled out of Russia. As the CIA gets hints that the Islamists want to explode a nuclear weapon inside the United States, the pressure on Behringer steps up.

Behringer also must deal with internal pressures. His marriage has ended badly, his latest bed partner is making noises about commitment, his alcohol problem dogs him, his mother's health is fading and his father's unresolved suicide continues to chafe.

OK, author MacKinnon at times threatens to lose his readers in a jumble of CIA acronyms, code names and bureaucratic politics. But then, he'll grab readers back with a nicely done take on the atmosphere in Istanbul, or the lazy sexuality of Behringer's girlfriend.

This is far from an airport bookstore A-bomb thriller. "The Contractor" requires some patience and careful reading. Readers willing to invest such patience and care will reap a rich dividend: a dandy story, superbly told.

Back in 2006, New York Times reporter Alex Berenson hit it big with "The Faithful Spy," a thriller about an undercover CIA agent in Afghanistan. Last year, Berenson followed up with "The Ghost War," in which the same agent heads off a war with China.

Now, Berenson has given us Thriller No. 3 starring the same agent, John Wells. This time, in "The Silent Man," Wells finds himself on the trail of a band of well-armed Islamist terrorists. They've managed to lay hands on a couple of Russian nuclear bombs and to smuggle them into the United States, just in time for the State of the Union speech.

Mind you, once Berenson steps away from the stodgy nonfiction practices of The Times, he writes vividly and well. And yes, "The Silent Man" offers readers a tale that mixes suspense with technical detail a la Tom Clancy.

But that said ...

Maybe the time has come for author Berenson to put Agent Wells on the shelf and strike out in a different direction for his next thriller. Although a little bit of a terse tough guy goes a long way, Wells has slashed and stomped his way through three thrillers. Please, Mr. Berenson, turn your storytelling skill to something new and different.

"Lethal Legacy" is Linda Fairstein's 11th crime thriller starring Alexandra Cooper, a sex-crimes prosecutor in Manhattan. This new tale takes readers into a setting that may be a first for a crime-thriller writer: the New York Public Library's rare books and maps archives.

Cooper opens the story by looking into what seems to be the rape of a young woman who restores rare books. But the young woman soon turns up near the library as a corpse. Then her apartment yields the corpse of a second murdered woman.

The plot of "Lethal Legacy" defies easy summary. Indeed, at times it almost defies following, given its complexity. But at the heart of it lies greed, plus a lust to get hands on a priceless 16th century map.

What lifts author Fairstein a step or two above her fellow crime writers is her pitch-perfect skill with dialogue. Whether the speaker is a young teen from the ghetto, a smart-mouth homicide detective, a hotshot rising star on Wall Street or a sneeringly snotty society matron, the words sound precisely right.

Fairstein also has a nice touch with the sociology of Manhattan, especially old-money Manhattan. She pegs one very rich old man as a creature obsessed with "rare books, expensive wine and cheap women."

As you follow the plot, you'll learn a lot about rare books and maps - and even a little about those cheap women.

Mystery writer Robert Ellis of Los Angeles brings back LA homicide detective Lena Gamble in "The Lost Witness," a follow-up to his "City of Fire" from 2007.

Internal police politics have handed Gamble a series of dirty jobs. As "The Lost Witness" opens, Gamble gets stuck with yet another dirty job: the gruesome murder of a downscale prostitute. Or so it seems.

But as "The Lost Witness" unreels, nothing stays as it seems. Across Los Angeles in December, Gamble follows one surprise to another, working her way up the socioeconomic ladder. The plot zigs and zags like a slalom course before finally flying off the ski jump of credibility.

Still, so what? Ellis writes well and has a good sense of pace and timing. Once you start "The Lost Witness," you'll stay with it through those zigs and zags. And even when you finish the book, it'll spring up like a side effect each time you see those pharmaceutical commercials on the network evening news.

First-time author Jack Wilson grew up around Springfield, Mo., then went on to the Navy and the CIA. The Missouri connection plays a big part in "The Devil's Kiss," a wild and woolly thriller that pits CIA good guy Cortland Jamison against the bad guys in a Colombian drug cartel.

Seems that the Colombians have found a foolproof way to get their drugs into America: through a free-trade zone set up in Springfield. There, a band of brothers who once ran an Ozarks bootlegging operation control the free-trade zone and make a deal with the Colombians. The CIA's Jamison must try to connect the dots and counter the cocaine.

Author Wilson bumps his plot from Washington to New York to Colombia and to other places. But much of the action unreels in St. Louis, where the bootlegging brothers make their headquarters.

Like many a thriller, "The Devil's Kiss" threatens to spin out of control. On the other hand, when the climactic spinning takes place on a runway at Downtown-Parks Airport, local readers can't help pressing on.

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'The Contractor'

A novel by Colin MacKinnon

Published by St. Martin's, 320 pages, $24.95

On sale Tuesday

'Lethal Legacy'

A novel by Linda Fairstein

Published by Doubleday, 416 pages, $26

On sale Feb. 10

'The Silent Man'

A novel by Alex Berenson

Published by Putnam, 432 pages, $25.95

On sale Feb. 10

'The Devil's Kiss'

A novel by Jack Wilson

Published by Xlibris, 313 pages, $29.99 ($19.99 paper)

'The Lost Witness'

A novel by Robert Ellis

Published by Minotaur, 368 pages, $25.95

On sale Tuesday

'Dead or Alive'

A novel by Michael McGarrity

Published by Dutton, 304 pages, $25.95

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Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

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