Alan Cheuse looks at three new thrillers with a Washington, D.C. theme that are worth checking out.
"Top Down" by Jim Lehrer, Random House, 208 pages, $26
The devastating work of an international shooter appears in Newshour veteran Jim Lehrer's 22nd novel, "Top Down." His premise is that on the day of John F. Kennedy's assassination, a Secret Service Agent named Van Walters checked the Dallas weather and OKed the removal of the bubble top from the presidential limo, thus inadvertently giving Lee Harvey Oswald a clear shot. Five years later, a young Texas journalist named Jack Gilmore, who was covering the Kennedy visit to Dallas that fatal day, hears from Walters' daughter Marti. The decision to take that top off has ruined her father's life, she explains. Gilmore, smelling a good story, offers his assistance in helping the former agent through his trauma. The reporter follows the evidence and gets an education in the turns and twists of fate. For all the heavy payback, the novel moves quickly and deftly. And, if one can say this about a novel depending on the death of J.F.K., it's something resembling a reading delight.
"The Double" by George Pelecanos, Little, Brown, 304 pages, $26
George Pelecanos is the only Washington native among these novelists, and his indigenous vision of the capital city leans much more toward life in the neighborhoods than anything else that goes on in the political part of town. Though his reputation as a novelist is usually overshadowed by his role as a television producer and writer for "The Wire" and "Treme," Pelecanos, as this new crime story makes clear, stands shoulder to shoulder with the best crime novelists of the moment. "The Double" is the title of a painting in the story which a lubricious criminal named Billy Hunter steals from a woman he preys on; it's also the nature of the novel's main character, an adopted Greek-American private investigator named Spero Lucas. Is Lucas a good-souled ex-Marine of a sleuth who works doggedly to right wrongs for his clients? Or is he still the killer he discovered he was on a Middle East battlefield? These are the questions that haunt this scene-perfect thriller.
"Blowback" by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett, Blue Rider, 336 pages, $26.95
Valerie Plame, the CIA field operative who was outed by an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, has teamed up with a suspense writer named Sarah Lovett to write a series about a cagey and smart CIA field operative named Vanessa Pierson. "Blowback" is the first book, a collaboration that offers the story of Pierson's Middle Eastern adventures. It seems Pierson is trying to pinpoint the state of Iran's nuclear bomb program in the face of sniper fire from Pauk, an expert assassin. The trained killer takes out her contacts one after another, while Pierson tries to track down the shooter's employer, an international arms dealer named Bhoot. There's also a side-story with heavy breathing: an affair (forbidden under an Agency rule) between Pierson and a Lebanese-born CIA analyst named Khoury. That's a fair amount of plot for a first-time novelist to manipulate but presumably Lovett moved the wrist of the first-hand field operative Plame to make things go smoothly.
Alan Cheuse is a regular contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered," and his most recent novel is "Song of Slaves in the Desert."