Less cerebral--but also rather less taut or plausible--than The Siege of the Villa Lipp (1977), this new thriller continues...



Less cerebral--but also rather less taut or plausible--than The Siege of the Villa Lipp (1977), this new thriller continues what Michael Gilbert calls Ambler's ""Swiss period"": utterly international storytelling in which finance is more crucial than politics. The opening chapters are superb--as narrator Robert Halliday, freelance writer and ex-CIA operative, is sent a bomb (complete with warnings) by someone named Karlis Zander. . . who just wants to get Halliday's attention. And by the time Halliday has identified Zander--as an aging, notorious middleman for Third World/terrorist deals--he has also received a bizarre job offer from a reputable (but conglomerate-tied) Italian publisher: to collaborate, for a huge fee, on a book about a 19th-century anarchist. Could the elusive Zander be behind this offer? He could indeed. So, once in Italy, Halliday (abducted) meets Zander and learns the real deal for which the anarchist book was only a cover: Zander, representing a Persian Gulf ruler, is offering NATO a possible military base in the Gulf--in exchange for asylum for Zander, who's on the hit list of a terrorism-for-hire mob. Halliday's role: to liaison with the CIA and NATO and to provide a cover story for the secret Austria negotiations between ""the Ruler"" and NATO; Halliday, a onetime (failed) talk-show host, will pretend to be TV-interviewing the Ruler about his odd plans to build an Austrian health clinic. Elaborately farfetched? Perhaps. But Ambler suavely shifts gears so often in the first 100 pages that one is quite ready to go along for the ride in any direction. Unfortunately, however, the pace--already leisurely and talk-heavy--then bogs down badly as Halliday, Zander, and Zander's staff (including his matter-of-factly seductive daughter) prepare the TV-crew setup, chugging towards Austria. And things do not pick up until the actual interview with the Ruler--who turns out to be a madman with ulterior motives re biochemical warfare--and a final sequence involving car chases, shootouts with those hired-gun terrorists, and the fate of the bizarre interview film. Not quite gripping, then--with a smooth, ironic narrator-hero who, though a pleasure to read, is a bit difficult to care about. But if Ambler's recent work doesn't quite triumph by the more conventional criteria for suspense (criteria which his own early work helped to establish), non-thrill-seeking readers will continue to appreciate the rarer pleasures of Ambler's ""Swiss period"": graceful phrasing, an autumnal cosmopolitan elegance, and a wry, dignified cynicism which calmly gathers in all the horrors of each passing decade.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1981

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