2 old spooks continue life-or-death game

June 17, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Staff Writer

If cats have nine lives, then Jim Lehrer would appear to be member of the feline species -- at least in terms of careers. Originally a newspaper man, he is best known as co-anchor of PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," but he also has written novels, a couple of memoirs and a few stage plays.

OK. I know that doesn't add up to nine. But Mr. Lehrer's still going strong, and his latest novel, "Blue Hearts," marks such a major departure in his fiction writing that it deserves a category all its own.

Unlike his down-home "One-Eyed Mack" novels, based on the adventures of the hayseed lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, "Blue Hearts" is a tale of CIA intrigue. Admittedly, Mack took on the CIA in the third book in the series, but that was more of a spoof. This is the genuine article -- a spy thriller.

The title, as protagonist Charlie Henderson explains, is "the unofficial in-house name for a citation given in secret to CIA personnel wounded or otherwise injured in the line of duty."

Charlie, retired after 35 years, has a Blue Heart. So does the man he thinks is trying to kill him -- Bruce Conn Clark, a former secretary of state.

Charlie and Bruce worked for the Soviet Russia Division, and on the night of Nov. 22, 1963, they shared a top-secret assignment. Now, almost three decades later, Charlie is leading a contented, private existence as a West Virginia innkeeper. Bruce is leading a contented, public existence as a much-in-demand consultant and speaker.

Then one morning a bomb explodes in Charlie's hotel room; the following day he discovers the brakes have been tampered with on his Jeep. Increasingly, he suspects Bruce.

For his part, Bruce is convinced that Charlie plans to expose secretsfrom his past -- and not just those related to their hush-hush 1963 assignment. So the chase is on.

There are two disquieting aspects to this chase. The first is that, from their code names to the tricks they play on each other, Bruce and Charlie behave increasingly like little boys. So much so, in fact, that they both acknowledge it. Bruce calls it "simple little-boy exhilaration." To Charlie, it's "two old farts playing little-boy spy games." But they love it.

Secondly, it turns out that this entire life-or-death chase is based on a misunderstanding -- a couple of misunderstandings, actually. While this makes for highly entertaining fiction, the comparison between international intrigue and children's games is more than a little unsettling. And that's nothing compared to the idea that lives -- and by extension, even nations -- could be lost to a misunderstanding.

So, underneath "Blue Heart's" colorful personalities and involving adventure story, Mr. Lehrer has added a cautionary layer. It creeps up on you, but it stays with you. It's spooky -- in both the CIA and terror senses of the word. And it's also a darned good yarn.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Blue Hearts"

Author: Jim Lehrer

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 214 pages, $20

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