As in his first novel, In the Secret State, McCrum displays a talent for moody, atmospheric narration here but again lavishes that talent on a thin story--this time the familiar, didactic tale of a passive, apolitical man's radicalization. McCrum's reluctant protagonist is Philip Taylor, 30, a London academic who ""had never taken a risk worth speaking of in his life."" But Philip's older brother Daniel, an investigative journalist, has taken a whole range of risks: turning his back on the family business (pharmaceuticals), writing anti-Establishment exposÃ‰s, permanently alienating their old father. And, though Philip hasn't seen Daniel in years, he suddenly gets caught up in his brother's world--when he gets a call from Daniel's girlfriend, counterculture journalist Stevie: Daniel has disappeared, Stevie is worried, and indeed Daniel soon turns up dead--an apparent victim of sheer loss-of-heart. So Philip needs ""to know how it all went wrong."" He retraces Daniel's career, really understanding for the first time what Daniel learned (to devastating effect) while in Africa: that the family's business in the Third World was corrupt, dangerous, even genocidal. So now, moving into Daniel's house with Stevie (who literally slaps him out of passivity), Philip says: ""I share your anger and Daniel's anger--you have both taught me that."" And when he discovers that a terrorist is storing explosives at the house, Philip keeps the secret; after all, if he went to the police, he'd lose ""the rapport with Stevie, the unraveling of Daniel's past, and the tiny surges of self-confidence he was now experiencing for the first time in years. . . ."" Unfortunately, however, Philip has discovered activism too late: the terrorist, tracked down by the cops, holds Philip hostage--with fatal results. In Britain, perhaps, this contrived, theme-heavy scenario is less stale than it is here; very similar American stories were rampant through the Seventies. Even more crucially, however, Philip isn't merely passive; he's a pill and a bore at best, a stock figure at worst, a poor symbol (if so intended) of British complacency. And the overall effect is stiff, often talky, earnestly Message-y--though McCrum's undeniable skills (most evident here in scenes with Philip's senile father) continue to promise better, more full-bodied fiction in the future.