Routine antiterrorist high-tech thriller with a coolly complicated hero, well-researched settings, and frighteningly accurate knowledge of lethal technologies. What would suspense writers do without Saddam Hussein? Mad, bad, impossible to know, the mustachioed dictator has kept the tired genre alive. Here, Saddam, annoyed at yet another US-sponsored attempt on his life, pays Carlos the Jackal a king's ransom to wipe out everybody who's anybody in the American government by sabotaging the President's Inaugural Ball at the Kennedy Center. The first hundred or so pages follow the sly but oh-so-impolite Carlos as he navigates the mostly out-in-the-open world of international terrorism, blithely laundering money, staying in great hotels, smuggling great gobs of plastic explosives past bored customs personnel, and finding the right fanatics for the job. But just when Carlos seems to have his lethal ducks in a row, the CIA and Mossad stumble on the fact that's something's up and turn for help to renegade agent Norman Richards, an ex--CIA man earlier bounced out of the Company for having an active conscience. Though newcomer Lichtman seems more interested in exploring the mechanics of mayhem than animating any of his tissue-thin characters, the endlessly suffering, quietly restrained Richards is a winner. Unlike Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy's lock-jawed â€ bermensch, Richards, for all his tough-talking and misplaced idealism, is a sensible, decent guy. As interesting as Richards is, though, he's reduced to little more than an action toy as Lichtman sends him on a series of pointless chases that culminate in a surprisingly convincing last-minute rescue of Washington's fatuous Beltway elite. Rigidly formulate, and far too predictable, but Lichtman's by-the-numbers debut proves that he can do a big-boys-with-bad-toys tale and create a believable hero to hang it on. The suspense this time, though, is lacking--you end up feeling sorry for Saddam.