Szulc (The Illusion of Peace, etc.) is known primarily as a journalist, and his first novel won't change that: this stiff, predictable, painfully slow-moving story of a US ambassador during the last days of a Somoza-like dictatorship will have most readers fervently wishing that Szulc had simply written a non-fiction book on Nicaragua. Not that he hasn't made a stab at sacrificing credibility for entertainment's sake: his ambassador to ""Malagua"" is beautiful, love-hungry Julia Savage--daughter of a onetime CIA chief, ex-wife of a Latin American smuggler, and longago friend of Weatherman fugitives. But these melodramatic contrivances merely add implausibility as good-liberal Julia (appointed over objections from the State Dept. and the CIA) attempts to make a fair assessment of the Malagua crisis. Should the US continue supplying dictator Ferrer with arms to fight the rebels? Are the rebels really Cuban pawns, diehard Marxists? Will Fetter really clean up his human-rights act in exchange for US support? All these questions are talkily debated while the CIA unsuccessfully tries to blackmail Julia into a pro-Ferret stance . . . and while Julia secretly contacts the rebel Front, learning from magnetic rebel-priest Rolando that there are two rebel factions--one radical extremist, the other (Rolando's) essentially democratic. So Julia recommends US neutrality, especially when she learns that many Malaguan businessmen are anti-Ferret. And Washington seems to go along with her, cutting off military shipments. But Julia has been tricked; the CIA is secretly still arming Ferret; Rolando's faction now takes over the National Assembly, with hostages (including Julia); there's a general strike, all-out warfare; then, after a too-late US attempt to arrange for negotiations, Fetter is deposed by a leftist Junta--with Rolando, now Julia's ex-priest lover, as Foreign Minister. And finally--when Rolando is assassinated by CIA order--Julia vows to fight on against rightwing US bunglings in Latin America. Crudely didactic? Yes indeed--with cartoon villains (leering Ferret and the cigar-chomping CIA conniver) and saintly heroes. But the far bigger problem here is Szulc's inept narration: plodding, repetitive exposition; subplots that go nowhere; digressions (sometimes interesting) into Mayan history and culture; unlifelike dialogue; unnecessary flashbacks. So, despite the clear, detailed discussion of some important issues, fiction readers will find little to grab onto; and those looking for illumination of Nicaragua-like tangles will probably do better elsewhere.