SCIMITAR by Peter Niesewand


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Perhaps the fact that Niesewand (Fall Back, A Member of the Club) died recently, at age 38, partly explains the odd, lopsided structure of this uneven thriller--which treads water for well over half the novel, turning to the story's raison d'être (the hypothetical USSR use of neutron bombing in Afghanistan) only in the last 100 pages. First, there's the brief defection of scientist Viktor Rabinovich, part of the USSR delegation at N.Y. disarmament talks; before Rabinovich can divulge some Big Secret, however, he's kidnapped back to Russia for interrogation/ imprisonment--while the arms-talks collapse. Then, some time later, the talks resume, Rabinovich (temporarily forgiven) again comes to N.Y.--and this time two DIA agents, Ross and Lyle, plan to kidnap him, almost falling into a KGB trap. Then, to punish the DIA, the KGB hatches schemes for the assassination of both Ross and Lyle: a woman-agent joins Ross' parachuting club, sabotaging his chute (killing someone else by mistake); Lyle is injured when his apartment-elevator is blown up; when he recovers, the two guys execute the woman KGB-agent by tossing her off a balcony. (Ross feels some guilt.) And meanwhile, through all these violent, lively, but mostly extraneous episodes, there are also pointless digressions into the DIA agents' sex lives: Lyle is cheerfully bisexual while Ross, after experimenting with adultery, cocaine, and threesomes, returns to his older wife Elaine (who has gotten a face-lift to save her marriage). At long last, however, the novel proper does eventually begin--when a DIA expert on chemical warfare comes to the conclusion that the USSR has dropped a neutron bomb on the Afghans in Badakhshan. Could this be would-be defector Rabinovich's secret? Yes, it could. So agents Lyle and Ross are now dispatched to Afghanistan, ordered to bring back proof (actual dying people) of the USSR neutron-atrocities. Posing as journalists, they don Pathan disguise, guided by mujahideen--one of whom is a KGB spy, alerting Moscow of the DIA men's moves. And, though the Russians try to eliminate Ross and Lyle by dropping a neutron bomb directly on them, the agents manage to return, with living/dying proof of the bombing. . . and their own life-spans in some doubt after fairly close exposure to neutron radiation. An uneasy mix of comic-book spy action and more serious political suspense, without the character-appeal (in the DIA agents) needed to hold it all together--but intermittently tense and disturbing, rarely dull, and fairly convincing in the Afghanistan sequences. (According to the publisher, journalist Niesewand was in Afghanistan when he ""conceived the idea for Scimitar and also contracted a disease that was to prove fatal."")

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 1984
Publisher: Stein & Day