A Thriller That Plunges Into a Violent Underworld

By , David Clark Scott covers Mexican-Central American issues for the Monitor from Mexico City.

BODY OF TRUTH. By David L. Lindsey, Doubleday, 417 pp., $22.50

IN this heart-pounding thriller, David Lindsey takes the reader on a tense journey through the violent, Erebus world that is so much a part of Guatemala today.

Neither the United States nor the Guatemalan government (which has a United States public-relations firm buffing its image abroad) will appreciate this portrait, although no doubt they will find it familiar.

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"Body of Truth" comes on the heels of another suspense yarn by Lindsey, "Mercy" (1990), which hit the New York Times paperback bestseller list. This time, he has brought back Stuart Hayden, a Houston cop and hero from previous novels. Hayden is searching for a missing American woman when he gets sucked into a twisted nether world of leftist guerrillas, CIA subterfuge, corrupt Guatemalan generals, death squads, and baby trading. A married man, Hayden is the calm, moral center in a maelstrom of indecency.

If the setting sounds fantastic, one has only to check local Guatemalan papers. In recent weeks, this Central American nation has played host to a spate of terrorist bombings in the capital (blamed on everyone from vengeful Colombian drug lords to political extremists) and rumors of a coup dtat.

And Lindsey has done his homework. The breakneck tale is told with a gritty accuracy of place. Only briefly does one sample the elegant scents of the posh "Zona Viva" in Guatemala City. Most of the action takes place out in the sweltering barrios, where the stench of too many people trying to eke out a living in one place mingles with the sound of boomboxes belting out the "truths" imparted by the growing fundamentalist evangelical movement.

Credibility, however, is stretched now and then in the story line. For example, when Hayden is at the point of being shot by a tough, political prison warden in a cemetery rendezvous, his unlikely savior is a shovel-wielding old woman, whom he has befriended just moments before. But the basic plot holds together. And those looking for a well-crafted thriller sprinkled with penetrating insights will find "Body of Truth" satisfying.

Toward the end of the novel, a doctor in the shanty towns poignantly describes Guatemalan suffering in terms of a hungry child and the buzzing cicada:

"As long as lies and cruelty prevailed in the people's hearts, the child would starve. That was his fate, to be a silent symbol, an `outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual corruption,' proof of the people's will to evil. And I also believe that on the same day that God made this child, he made the cicada to be his voice. Starving is a silent activity and a hungry child is easy to forget, so God made the cicada to cry for him.... So the cicada's voice became the voice of remembrance, remindin g man that the great cruelties of his heart do not always come from something as grandiose as his evil imaginings, but just as often, perhaps more often, they come from something as simple as forgetting."

The cruel and corrupt hearts in Lindsey's novel are by far a minority in Guatemala. But it doesn't take many to poison the climate, as he makes clear in "Body of Truth." In the intensity of this hunt for the woman through, yes, a surreal and relatively lawless land, there's little room for the actual pockets of normalcy in Guatemala or the valiant efforts of human-rights groups.

Perhaps a pressure-cooker detective novel isn't the place for a balanced or realistic view of Guatemalan life. But if Lindsey's intent is to spin an engaging tale while coloring in Guatemala's darker hues, often unseen by American and European tourists trolling the Indian markets for crafts, he has succeeded.

Reading this book, one is struck with the realization that Guatemala is one of the few places where the cold war continues. It no longer receives US military aid, but the Army has been well indoctrinated. As dedicated as ever, the Army scours the mountains, continuing a 30-year war to wipe out the communist menace.

As factions make peace in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras, and the region fades from North American newspaper headlines, Lindsey's novel reminds us that in Guatemala the cicada is still crying.

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