A too-political tale by Buckley and an impressive first effort THRILLERS

March 31, 1991|By Bob Baylus | Bob Baylus,Mr. Baylus is a writer living in Baltimore.

When William F. Buckley has not been hosting his television program, writing his column, working on the National Review or going on trans-Atlantic sails, he has been turning out a well-received series of spy thrillers.

Mr. Buckley's lead character is CIA agent Blackford Oakes. In the eight previous novels, Oakes had been thrust into such highly charged situations as the Cuban missile crisis, stopping a possible Fourth Reich and saving the queen of England. In "Tucker's Last Stand" (Random House, 259 pages, $19.95), Oakes is assigned to work with a charismatic, shadowy figure named Tucker Montana. An eccentric physics genius, Tucker worked on the Los Alamos project as a teen-ager during World War II. Troubled by his role in making the atomic bomb, Tucker drifted after the war. He finally emerges in Southeast Asia in the early '60s.

The CIA recruits him and assigns Oakes to work with him in inciting an incident with North Vietnam. President Johnson wants a "blank check" from Congress to escalate the war in Vietnam. The result is the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Mr. Buckley tries to champion Barry Goldwater's doomed presidential bid while maintaining that Johnson had a hidden agenda in the war in Vietnam. In keeping with his conservative political bent, his portraits of such politicians as Johnson and Bobby Kennedy are as scathing as the profile of Senator Goldwater is gentle. If "Tucker's Last Stand" had been strictly a political novel, it might have been more successful than it is as part of a suspense series.


Frank Keogh is a cop with several problems -- Big Problems. The Vietnam veteran and son of a retired policeman is a member of New York's sniper squad. After a particularly nasty incident in the South Bronx, Keogh has a blowup with a fellow cop. Shortly after that, the cop is murdered. The method used parallels a serial crime that Keogh's father worked on. At first, it is dismissed as a coincidence. But a second cop -- a woman Keogh was having an affair with -- is killed in the same fashion.

Not only is Keogh the No. 1 suspect in the two homicides, he also shoots an unarmed suspect in an unrelated incident. The suspect's brother -- a psychopath in his own right -- swears revenge on Keogh. With his marriage on the rocks, Frank Keogh is facing some tough decisions. Keogh's only salvation lies in retracing the 20-year-old case to find answers to his critical situation.

Carsten Stroud's "Sniper's Moon" (Bantam, 370 pages, $18.95) is a sensational thriller. With a Byzantine plot that will keep the most savvy reader off balance, the narrative rockets along. The characters are completely believable. Mr. Stroud's insights into the worlds of the police and criminal are fascinating, and a grim authenticity permeates the pages. What is more impressive is that "Sniper's Moon" is a first novel. Mr. Stroud will have a tall order in topping this work.


If "Sniper's Moon" is an example of the best of the genre, then Bill Granger's "League of Terror" (Warner, 304 pages, $19.95) is an illustration of how formulaic and pedantic a thriller can be.

"League of Terror" is part of the November Man series. November Man's real name is Devereaux; he works for the super-secret R Section. The Cold War is winding down, but terrorism is on the rise.

A conspiracy is brewing, headed by a maniacal businessman, the Irish Republican Army and a master criminal -- Henry McGee -- to wreak havoc in Europe.

Devereaux had clashed with McGee in two previous novels. When McGee shoots Devereaux's girlfriend, Rita Macklin, and tries to blow up Devereaux, Devereaux begins his own vendetta.

If this sounds to you like an example of comic-book action, cardboard characters and overheated prose, you're right on the money. The tone is set early as Mr. Granger gives a cast of characters containing descriptions as: "Rita Macklin -- a tough, sexy journalist whose only flaw is that she loves the November Man" or "Juno -- a man who sells death in a used vodka bottle."

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