Old soldier returns to hometown war

November 14, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Like many thriller writers, Nelson DeMille concluded that with the end of the Cold War a few years ago, he'd have to find other topics or find another job. So the man who broke into the business in 1978 with an international thriller, "By the Rivers of Babylon," turned his attention to domestic situations.

It's been a good move. Mr. DeMille has a knack for devising interesting situations, and his last book, 1992's "The General's Daughter," was an ingeniously plotted, taut thriller about men and women in the military. But the Cold War evidently is still on his mind. "Spencerville" is set in this country, but it concerns an old Cold Warrior who just can't forget a lifetime of fighting communism.

As the book opens, Keith Landry has just been cashiered by the government he had served for 25 years -- first as an officer in Vietnam, then as a CIA operative, then most recently as a staffer on the National Security Council. Landry returns to his hometown of Spencerville, Ohio, but he's got mixed feelings about his termination:

"The Cold War, once a growth industry, had downsized, leaving its specialists, technicians, and middle management exploring other options. On an intellectual level, Landry knew this was the best thing to happen to humanity since the Gutenberg printing press put a lot of monks out of work. On a more personal level, he was annoyed that a government that had taken twenty-five years of his life couldn't have found enough peace dividend to keep him around for five more years and full retirement pay."

So now he's returning to Spencerville, which he had seldom visited since being shipped off to Vietnam. His folks had tired of the Ohio winters and moved to Florida; in fact, few family members had remained. But there's a century-old family farmhouse that's empty, and Landry isn't sure what else he would do.

Besides, there's an affair of the heart to deal with. His old high school and college flame, Annie Prentis, still lives in Spencerville. She had married Cliff Baxter, a good-looking but mentally challenged bully from town who became chief of police.

Cliff turns out to be a nasty thug, a paranoid who intimidates or runs out of town almost anyone who crosses him. He is also a womanizer fond of sleazy encounters with vulnerable women -- wives of prisoners, poor women unable to pay traffic tickets -- yet zealously tracks every move his wife makes. She is living in a prison from which it seems no escape is possible -- until Landry comes back.

She and Landry had kept in touch intermittently by mail over the years, and the feelings had never died. So when word gets out in the small town that Keith Landry is back, the former lovers are destined to meet again, with an insanely jealous husband hot on their trail. When Annie and Landry get back together after 25 pTC years, they know there will inevitably be a confrontation with Cliff.

With the themes of long-lost love, and the desperate duel between a weary former Cold Warrior and a brutal small-town chief of police, "Spencerville" has the elements of a really good thriller. There are also some nice meditations on the Cold War and on the decline of rural America; Landry may be a man of action but he's a thoughtful so-and-so. But the book falls short in a few key areas.

The major problem is Cliff. He's a pig, all right, but as Mr. DeMille draws him, he's just not scary. He's not smart enough or insidious enough to go mano a mano with an antagonist such as Landry. He may intimidate half of Spencerville, but he's small potatoes for a guy who terminated with extreme prejudice secret agents all over the world.

Annie, too, is not particularly believable. Certainly there are any number of intelligent, decent people who have stayed in abusive marriages far too long, but Cliff is such a boor that it was hard to see her sticking around with him. If she hadn't caught on after two decades-plus of marriage that he was bad news, and hadn't done anything about it, then she loses my vote early.

What's lacking in "Spencerville" is the subtlety that marked Mr. DeMille's "The General's Daughter," in particular. Here, the characters are presented, but not evoked, and some of the dialogue is unbelievably clumsy for a writer of his talent.

And small things nag: When Landry first comes back to Spencerville, a gasoline attendant can't get over the fact that this new fellow is driving a Saab 900. Now, maybe not many people in that part of the state drive Swedish cars, but Saabs are not exactly spaceships from Mars, either.

Mr. Warren's reviews run Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Spencerville"

Author: Nelson DeMille

Publisher: Warner

Length, price: 481 pages, $23.95

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