Prophecy? What Prophecy?

April 02, 1995|By MYRON BECKENSTEIN

It was the most talked-about story around my corner of the office, the catchy little story that the Tokyo subway poisoning had been foretold a few years ago in a British suspense novel.

Uncanny, said the story. Unethical, said some commenters, wondering about a writer's responsibility to the public and whether he should have given terrorists a blueprint to follow.

The story in The Sun was short:

Reuters

LONDON -- A British author uncannily foretold yesterday's nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subway system in a thriller he wrote four years ago.

In his 1991 book "Deadly Perfume," Gordon Thomas described how terrorists obtained the deadly nerve agent sarin and tested it in a small town before planning its release in the subway system of a major city.

"I said at the time this is a crime waiting to happen," the Dublin, Ireland-based author said in a telephone interview. . . . In reality, the book doesn't deal with sarin or with chemical weapons or with death by testing or with Tokyo or with subways.

The book deals with the use of anthrax bacteria as a biological weapon. And it deals with China, Libya, Afghanistan, Athens, Rome, Paris, New York, London and South Africa, but not Tokyo. Japan appears in a shopping list of possible targets as does an attack on the subway system. But no subways were attacked or specifically threatened.

This does get author Thomas off on the spreading-terrorism rap, but it opens up other concerns.

For one thing, how did this uncanny story get into the news flow, first by Reuters and the next day by the Associated Press and finally in the big time, national TV? It began, as so many things do nowadays, with a fax, sent from Ireland, which, coincidentally, is where Mr. Thomas lives. Just who sent the fax was unclear a week later.

The reporter probably did not have time to do major reporting, nor to read the book. But he did not just accept the fax's statement. He called Mr. Thomas, getting corroboration and some good quotes. And who should know better what a book says than the author? Usually, but somehow not in this case.

How did Gordon Thomas manage to say so many things wrong about his book? He has written some 30 books, so maybe he got confused. Or maybe he was hoping to rekindle interest and sales of the book. After the splurge of publicity, there indeed were requests to the publisher from bookstores wondering if the book still was available. Unfortunately for this theory, it is not.

"Deadly Perfume" is about a planned anthrax attack by Arab terrorists on New York and London. The plan is foiled thanks to the uncanny Israeli intelligence agent David Morton.

Morton is equally forceful in talking to presidents or leading raids or tracking desperadoes through the jungle. He is also amazingly intuitive, which makes him run afoul of his boss, a bureaucrat who obstinately insists that he needs facts to go on.

But Morton is usually smack on target when he zeros in on improbable explanations.

The terrorists want the world's leading powers to stop supporting Israel and have the country turned over to them. First, they blow up major hotels simultaneously in London, Paris and New York -- apparently killing several hundred people. How many hundred is never given because the plot already has moved on toward the next atrocity, the one that uncannily paralleled the apparent testing of sarin on a small Japanese town last year.

Besides using a biological weapon, the attack in the book wasn't test but a full-fledged assault, with the terrorists wiping out an entire South African town to reinforce their seriousness and to show they have anthrax and can use it.

But Morton deduced this long before.

As the world leaders ponder whether to give in, the terrorists go forward with their strangely complex plan to bring anthrax to New York and London and unleash it there. In a climactic battle in rural Connecticut, the good guys wipe out the bad guys and win.

About the only thing approaching Morton's superb intuitive powers in moving the plot along is the continuing string of coincidences that put the good guys in exactly the right place at the right time and the bad guys in the wrong place.

Mr. Thomas also has problems with Arabs. Except for one late-arriving character, they are all despicable, vicious and somehow psychological deficient. The one exception is a repentant terrorist, and she ends up killing her own sister.

Myron Beckenstein works on the foreign desk of The Baltimore Sun.

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