Jack Higgins serving up more bang-bang

March 19, 1995|By Robert Ruby

"Angel of Death," by Jack Higgins. 311 pages. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. $23.95

The ingredients of Jack Higgins' 23rd mystery-thriller, " Angel of Death," are these: unsavory elements of the Irish Republican Army; the IRA's most unsavory Protestant opponents. Also, murderous zealots in Britain calling themselves " January 30." Also, murderous zealots in Lebanon. Also, plutonium that is for sale.

Also, Sean Dillon, IRA gunman-turned-secret-policeman, VTC accompanied by Scotland Yard's eager, admiring, attractive, unattached Chief Inspector, Hannah Bernstein.

The characters are in desperate search of excitement. It is what the cynically worldly used to call bang-bang. As in, we're going to Belfast (or Sarajevo, Beirut, Port-au-Prince) for bang-bang guns, shoot-'em-ups, a pint of adrenaline. In Belfast, Sean Dillon coolly shoots to death two Protestant extremists. A member of the shadowy January 30 uses her AK-47 to save Dillon from an ambush by a third. A few minutes later, Dillon is relaxing with tea and Scotch. The folks of January 30 review events over brandy. Throughout, everyone is much taken with Bushmill Irish whiskey, that is the attempt to portray British sophistication and cool.

January 30 is supposed to provide the reader's bang-bang. The group's full roster is quickly made known. That is one of the oddities of " Angel of Death" : It cannot keep a secret. January 30 includes a member of Parliament, a professor of politics, a Russian diplomat who is half-amok, and a glamorous actress. The mainspring of the plot is exposed within 10 pages, as are all the gears. The workings are as predictable as the passage of time. Protestant extremists travel to Beirut to buy Russian plutonium, and Dillon and Chief Inspector Bernstein foil the plot. Bernstein pays close attention to her makeup and hair. She and Dillon turn their attention to January 30, which in Robin Hood fashion usually attacks only those who deserve to die. One killing follows another. None comes as a surprise.

And in that way the story offers comfort, for here is an understandable world, albeit a violent one. No one is ever less than brave and no one is profound. The reader has the pleasure of being smarter than the whole lot. It is not an acceptable standard for all fiction but suffices for a thriller lamed by the absence of thrills. The characters are either tongue-tied or fantastically unreflective, as when Sean Dillon tries to answer Hannah Bernstein's question about why he abandoned the IRA: " Something clicked in my head one day. Put it any way you want."

The large, bewildering cast of extras includes Emma Thompson, Bill Clinton, the IRA's Gerry Adams and British Prime Minister John Major, all of them rendered as woodenly as Mr. Major is accused of being in real life. There are other problems too: When the setting switches to Beirut, Sean Dillon, gunman extraordinaire, is all thumbs at explaining Lebanese politics in eight lines of text. The howlers continue in descriptions of London, and a Russian diplomat is said to work, in 1994, in a Soviet embassy.

Sean, Hannah rescue us.

Robert Ruby is deputy foreign editor at The Sun. Before that he covered the Middle East and Europe for a decade, also for The Sun. His book, " Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms," will be published in April by Henry Holt and Co.

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