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Published: Saturday, 8/31/2002

Clancy is back in top form


RED RABBIT. By Tom Clancy. Putnam. 618 pages. $28.95.

This book, which is hard to put down, serves up a retrospective story involving a Tom Clancy regular, Jack Ryan, who in an earlier saga became President of the United States.

Ryan, a former Marine, history teacher, and successful stock analyst, is in London, focusing the analytic skill that made him big bucks in the market on the pulse of the Soviet Union's economy. That is, until a compelling message crosses his desk.

Like many a Clancy thriller, this is a tale of the suspense of process, devoted to showing the everyday tensions players in international intrigue live with. There are no James Bond hi-jinks, no buxom women throwing themselves at protagonists, no dry martinis, shaken not stirred.

Here the principal characters are couples, three sets of them. The men are principled and devoted to wives who are, with minor exceptions, their friends as well as their marital companions. It works.

The plot is moved by a historical event - the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II - whose outcome is well-imprinted on the international consciousness.

Kicking off the fictional action is the arrival at KGB headquarters in Moscow of a copy of a letter from the Polish Pope to the political leaders in Warsaw. In it he promises to resign the papacy and return to Poland if these Moscow lackeys try to keep the lid on the Polish people's rising expectations. Yuriy Andropov heads the secret police agency, but he has his eye on the General Secretaryship of the Party when incumbent Leonid Brezhnev dies. He decides Karol Wojtyla must die for his rashness, and he plots a scheme which, should it unravel, could destabilize the Middle East and spread mayhem and confusion. Why? He who rules the chaos runs the show.

Word of the letter has also trickled into British security hands; they anticipate an assassination, but they aren't sure. Who could be? It is impossible to know when or where. And were they to find all this out, in whose interest would it be to tell?

This is a tale of daring, of the conscience that inevitably forces action in the face of evil, and of the delicate gamesmanship involved in gathering information, exacting a price for it, and trying to prevent a tragedy. It is an illustration of the tediousness and tension with which even honorable treachery evolves, and a story of illusions created to confound and to assure that things are not what they seem. It shows spookcraft at its best and at its most ordinary.

Like the rest of Clancy's work, this fiction is rich in detail, and its action is carried out by unforgettable characters. Process, which can be boring in the hands of clods, is a matter of suspenseful patience and high-tension here, as the good guys go after the bad buys. History affirms that they didn't quite stop them, but they played a heck of a game.

Also like vintage Clancy, this is a long story set forth in a book that is 618 pages heavy. One's hands and arms ache with the holding of it. Reading it lying down was impossible until the book got propped on a stack of pillows at eye level. But one would be hard-pressed to tell a guy who has grabbed one's attention for better than a week of reading to, in effect, shut up.

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