Books SUMMER THRILLERS

A guide to the latest mysteries.

This summer’s thrillers are an impressive lot, for the most part, with strong performances from old hands like Graham Greene and Dick Francis, Nicholas Freeling and P. D. James. Here’s a handful of new titles to pack along on your trips to the pool, beach or cabin – or just to escape from the TV reruns with.



The Man with the President’s Mind, by Ted Allbeury. Simon & Schuster, $8.95. Allbeury’s novel deals with a subtle attempt by the Russians to anticipate American presidential decisions: The KGB duplicates the American President’s environment – complete with Oval Office, American TV and newspapers – and places within it one Andrei Levin, a leading Russian psychologist, to play President. That he does so with remarkable accuracy seems amusing and harmless enough, until we learn that the KGB is plotting a military takeover of Western Europe and using Levin to achieve its ends without American interference.

Allbeury’s story is ingeniously plotted, but a little too poorly written to be satisfying. His characters are flat and their actions predictable. The end is not particularly startling.



The Enemy, by Desmond Bagley. Dou-bleday, $7.95.

Bagley’s a master of the slick thriller, writing in the currently popular mode which stresses human values over political interests. In this one, a British Secret Service agent, Malcolm Jaggard, whimsically asks his counter-espionage computer for information on his prospective father-in-law, and is startled to find that the computer not only contains such information, but has it classified at a security level so high that Jaggard cannot retrieve it. The subsequent disappearance of his father-in-law-to-be leads Jaggard through an investigation that reveals a rival Secret Service branch’s involvement in dangerous biochemical research.

Bagley’s action-packed novel is prefaced by Pogo’s version of Commodore Perry’s announcement: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I read The Enemy straight through and enjoyed myself completely.



Stained Glass, by William F. Buckley, Jr. Doubleday, $8.95.

Buckley has a good idea for a thriller here, but he apparently can’t avoid showing his readers that he knows a lot of long words. I was more than willing to be interested in how the Americans might deal with Buckley’s German count, who is determined to wipe out the Nazi shame by calling on his fellow Germans to free their Eastern brothers from Red tyranny. The count seemed sure to win the chancellorship – and equally sure to start World War III.

Unfortunately, all we end up with is talk, talk, talk. I had to force myself through Stained Glass and can recommend it only to Mr. Buckley’s most faithful admirers. If anyone else had written such a book he would have been torn to shreds on “Firing Line.”



Risk, by Dick Francis. Harper & Row, $8.95.

Dick Francis’ plots are always intricate, though basically the same. Here, he plays the theme of the likable young man forced into unravelling a mystery because he’s somehow, without trying, become an obstacle to evil-doing. Roland Britten, an amateur jockey and professional tax accountant, keeps getting kidnapped and doesn’t know why or who’s behind it; but as usual in Francis’ novels, we have a spectrum of villains to choose from. Among them are a couple of big-time crooks who served prison terms because Britten uncovered their fraud, Britten’s affable but none-too-scrupulous partner, and a trainer for whom Britten refuses to ride a crooked race.

Untrue to form, however, Francis doesn’t quite succeed in aligning us with his hero in Risk. We can never identify with the priggish Britten: We’re glad he’s honest, but we wish we’d see it in action instead of hearing about it quite so much. Risk is okay, but not vintage Francis.



Sabine, by Nicholas Freeling. Harper & Row, $7.95.

If there’s such a thing as a quiet murder mystery, it’s Sabine. Freeling’s Henri Castang is a thoughtful French police detective, whose ability to understand unusual human situations has kept him from the promotions that are regularly bestowed upon his less clever but more colorful fellow officers. When an elderly poetess comes to the police with a tale of persecution, however, Castang’s low-key talents come into play. Everyone but Castang dismisses the old woman as a crank – in any case, it’s not a police matter. A few days later, she is found bludgeoned to death in her kitchen. Dismissing the widely held theory that she was unintentionally murdered by someone who broke into her house, Castang explores the means, motives, and opportunities of several unsavory suspects.

Sabine is delightful, if a bit too pat towards the conclusion. I’ll keep it on my shelves to read again someday.



The Human Factor, by Graham Greene. Simon and Schuster, $9.95.

Greene is the Grand Old Man of the spy story, and The Human Factor can only increase the respect in which he’s held. It presents a man caught in a web he created because he couldn’t simply carry out his Secret Service job. He has to seek the best for the world and to recognize and pay back a debt of love, thereby becoming enmeshed in treason. The Human Factor is compelling and horrifying. Perhaps it cuts too close to be a widely popular thriller, but it’s a fine work. I’m going to keep it around, too, but I’ll have to build up a little more distance – not to mention courage – before I can read it again.



Death of an Expert Witness, by P. D. James. Charles Scribner’s Sons, $8.95.

All mystery fans will be gladdened by the reappearance of Adam Dalgliesh, the polished but ruthless gentlman investigator from Scotland Yard. This stark drama is set in a forensic science laboratory, where Dalgliesh turns his attention toward the murder of a very unpleasant senior biologist. The crime, it turns out, doesn’t really surprise anyone, as the victim’s malevolence was almost universally felt. And there is a host of possible killers, including a bullied assistant on the brink of a nervous breakdown, the victim’s ex-mistress (who’s also the sister of the laboratory’s new director), and almost everyone else, from the laboratory cleaning woman to the victim’s cousin and apparent heir.

Death of an Expert Witness may not catch the general reader. But one can’t help admiring James’ tight control over plot and her vivid characterizations.



Waxwork, by Peter Lovesey. Pantheon Books, $7.95.

Contemporary writers who set their murder mysteries in Victorian England often succeed only in reminding you that they’re not Conan Doyle, but Lovesey’s a cut above this company. His story – full of interesting sidelights on the prison system and containing a macabre subplot detailing a hangman’s home life – caught and held my interest.

A beautiful woman confesses to poisoning a blackmailer. But all of a sudden doubts about her confession appear: She may be shielding her husband, who had the key to the poison cabinet. After all, revelation of her secret would have ruined his fashionable photographic business.

Detective Sergeant Cribb, a tireless investigator with the tenacity of a bulldog, discovers that the unhappy couple is linked to another death which had been thought a suicide. Some intriguing questions arise: Is the husband a fiend who would rather lose his beautiful wife to the hangman than have it known that she doesn’t love him? Did he poison his mistress? Or is the imprisoned woman a double murderess with motives quite different from those to which she confessed?

Obviously, you’ll have to read this one. It’s good fun, and the ending is a genuine surprise.

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