Grown-ups who miss the Hardy Boys or want something that reads like a Steven Spielberg screenplay will enjoy this modest thriller--all about an attempt to retrieve a cylinder of poison gas from China before it curtails ping-pong diplomacy in 1971. The cylinder, legacy of an American airplane crash during WW II, has been hidden for many years when the CIA acts on a rumor that Nelson Fong--a Berkeley chemical-warfare specialist now working for the Chinese--is interested in recovering the poison and turning it into a devastating weapon. The CIA decides to dispatch an unlikely trio to retrieve it ahead of Fong: aging professional assassin Jeffrey Thorne; all-too-Irish MI5 agent Brady; and Elena Maltby, whose father has been killed because he knew where the cylinder was stashed. Armed with a backpack nuclear device, Thorne and Co. set out on foot across the Tibetan mountainscape. Of course they'll run into Fong; of course they'll use the bomb to recover the cylinder anyway; and of course the whole mission is a setup, as Thorne has suspected from the beginning. The episodes of violence and revelations of duplicity don't really mean anything, but they do provide exciting endings for every chapter until each double-cross has been played out, and until Thorne--having survived attacks from the Red Army, Brady, Elena, the CIA, the local police of three countries, and a pair of gratuitous drag-dealers--can face his Washington bosses for the final inconsequential showdown. Despite the earnest flashbacks giving background information about all the principals, Taylor's second novel (after Shadow Tiger, 1988) takes itself even less seriously than a Spielberg film. Call it Raiders of the Lost Cylinder.