"A Perfect Soldier," by Ralph Peters. New York: Pocket Books. 303 pages. $23
The Evil Empire may be gone, but the bad guys in Ralph Peters' nicely plotted, rather grim new novel still speak Russian.
There's Nadya, the fatal femme who blows up her ex-KGB-general Dad at the Pentagon; Mitya, the thug who kills an elderly gent in a Washington men's room because he's broke and loves fast food; and Zhan, the albino enforcer from an unnamed Central Asian country who tutors Mitya in creative interrogation, using a cigarette lighter.
The few good men are - surprise - U.S. Army. The perfect soldier himself is tough, big-hearted Major Chris Ritter, always trying to do the right thing, even after his pal gets blown away during an ill-fated aid mission to the aforementioned unnamed Central Asian country.
"Since when do we need an assistant secdef [Secretary of Defense] for humanitarian assistance?" asks the doomed pal.
"Since we became humanitarian assistants," answers Ritter.
He shares the bitterness of his fellow soldiers in the New World Order, deprived of a worthy enemy and sent on murky assignments by the likes of that new-fangled assistant secretary of defense, Charlee Whyte, former lover of Ritter, current lover of the sleazy U.S. Sen. Oliver Cromwell. Charlee is a fearless, lonely do-gooder who despises men in uniform and is despised back.
The plot turns on a fulcrum of historical fact, one that Mr. Peters apparently knows first-hand. An Army officer and the author of four previous novels, Mr. Peters served on Task Force Russia, which investigated the possibility that U.S. POWs had been taken to the Soviet Union.
In 1993, the Pentagon reported that there was "broad and convincing" evidence that hundreds of American prisoners had been moved from North Korea to Soviet territory in the early 1950s and never released. The Russians denied it. The standoff continues, though recently the Pentagon said the number of Americans taken to Russia might have been as few as a dozen. "A Perfect Soldier" posits that the POWs were hidden in the Gulag for decades, then executed in 1989 as embarrassing reminders of the Stalinist past.
Around the KGB's photographs of the executions - held by the impossibly sexy Nadya, sought on behalf of the KGB by the unpleasant Mitya and Zhan and on behalf of the Army by our heroes - the story is built. The setting is that Sodom on the Potomac, Washington, and the book culminates rather nicely during competing pro-choice and anti-abortion rallies at the Lincoln Memorial.
It is a gripping yarn, occasionally graced with a humorous touch, such as the video-educated Mitya's disappointment that all American women do not resemble "the great Miss Julia Roberts."
Often, the writing slips into painful cliche or hammers the obvious ("It had been a horrible, horrible day," Charlee Whyte notes, after her entire staff is blown up). Also annoying is Mr. Peters' determination to score political points, referring repeatedly to women as "girls," scorning feminism, bureaucrats, Washington, civilians, etc. The asides come across as tiresome sarcasm, not fresh satire.
But for a distracting beach read, "A Perfect Soldier" will do fine. It is not a bad book that will make a better movie.
* Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun since 1983, was the newspaper's Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991. His book on the collapse of communism, "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union," was published last year.