A State Department staffer eager to save her faltering post realizes almost too late that she's sold her soul to a cabal of careerist D.C. demons. As a junior death officer in State's Citizens Emergency Center, Kate Verdi has the job of notifying relatives and expediting arrangements for Americans who die abroad. When she's assigned to collect the body of Patricia Van Slyke, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State killed in her Beijing hotel room shower, only to find that the body has been cremated without authorization from the family, Verdi, who's recently been given the gate by her married lover, now sees her career going up in flames as well. The only way to save it, her old buddy Lorna Demeritte advises her, is to join the Circle, a group of State Department types who watch out for ways to further one another's careers. Kimball, making his hardcover debut after two paperbacks, adroitly evokes Verdi's queasiness about the Circle, which has just squeezed one of its members into Van Slyke's newly vacant position and is angling to get another member onto the Russia desk, a slot opened up by the assassination of State attorney Brian Porter. But once Lorna blurts out the news that the Circle's having her stalked and that Verdi had better get out while she can, the Circle shifts from a highly effective substitute for John Grisham's tentacular law firm--after all, who better to evoke paranoia than your federal government at work?-- to a bunch of paunchy commandos who end up getting rousingly but not very plausibly outfoxed by Verdi and Sgt. Clarence Witherspoon, the D.C. cop investigating Brian Porter's murder. Verdi's unsuspected talent with handguns puts the story in the fantasy column for good. As long as they're rooted in everyday matters, Verdi's fears are gripping stuff. It's only when the devils come out into the open that Kimball loses his grip.