Watchdogs, by John Weisman. New York: The Viking Press. 274 pp. $16.75. Icebreaker, by John Gardner. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 288 pp. $10.95. The Conduct of Major Maxim, by Gavin Lyall. New York: The Viking Press. 264 pp. Down Among the Dead Men, by Michael Hartland. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 301 pp. $13.95. Kiev Footprint, by Carl A. Posey. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 208 pp. $12.95.
Espionage fans certainly have a variety to choose from this season, with plots ranging from the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II to space shuttle shenanigans and even the exploits of old favorite master spy James Bond.
A traditional setting - Holland in 1941 - provides the backdrop for DeWitt's War, by Hans Koning. For small-town mayor Jerome DeWitt, the Nazi occupation of his country is a bitter pill to swallow. On the one hand, he hates the foreign invaders; on the other hand, by cooperating with them he can help maintain, in a limited way, the safety of his fellow townspeople, that is, until the murder of the the town's wealthiest citizen. The Nazis suggest the victim was killed because he was a collaborator, and they demand retribution. But the more he investigates, the surer DeWitt becomes that the killing was financially inspired , and may even have involved Nazi officials. Despite being warned off the case, he pursues his investigation, becoming a fugitive himself as he digs to find the truth. In the process, he also tries to stop an international scheme involving millions of dollars that could affect the whole war effort. The plot itself is intriguing, but the setting and background characterizations are also particularly strong.
Watchdogs, by John Weisman, is a more straightforward thriller concerning an assassination plot against the President of the United States by a religious group led and financed by a fanatical South Korean military leader. For William Chapman, by-the-book head of the Secret Service division protecting the President, intimations of the plot are a nightmare. The reason: his feeling that it involves people close to the Chief Executive - possibly even members of his own security force. All he can do is protect the man as best he can, racing against time to find the traitor bent on murder.
As far as Icebreaker is concerned, suffice it to say that John Gardner's latest is vintage James Bond, with the master spy this time involved in a joint British-American-Israeli-Russian expedition at the Arctic Circle against a clandestine terrorist organization. The plot twists and turns are wonderfully baffling, with both style and characterization true to Ian Fleming's creation.
Gavin Lyall's The Conduct of Major Maxim, a sequel to ''The Secret Servant,'' continues the exploits of Maj. Harry Maxim, a military intelligence officer on detached duty at 10 Downing Street. In this episode, the major must unravel a case involving an AWOL corporal involved in an intelligence affair that has run fatally amok. Maxim finds himself drawn into a desperate search for documents relating to secret crimes in the background of an official in the East German government. He soon discovers that the East Germans are not the only enemies - he must also face bitter interagency rivalries and betrayal from his own side. Not as cerebral as le Carre's George Smiley or as flamboyant as James Bond, Harry Maxim is a solid, dependable, and likable hero, whose future exploits can be eagerly anticipated.
For those who like their fiction tied to actual events, Michael Hartland's Down Among the Dead Men is the book. Taiwan and the intrigue following United States diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China provide the background, with the threat of nuclear proliferation behind the crisis to be faced. There's something for everyone: a courageous heroine, Russian and Chinese spies, double agents, betrayals, deep dark secrets, and enough twists and turns to keep a reader totally off balance. There's also more than a smattering of violence and sexual explicitness which detract from the novel's interest, but there's still some good reading in it.
Kiev Footprint, by Carl A. Posey, isn't a book to start if you're looking for something to put you to sleep. Taut, fast-paced, and decidedly current, it manages to hold the reader's attention from beginning to end. The space shuttle Excalibur, with a top-secret military cargo on board, is disabled by an accident that kills its crew. The ship is in a rapidly decaying orbit, bound to crash soon. But Steven Borg, a science reporter with a Miami newspaper, discovers that the shuttle story is, in fact, a ruse. The shuttle is targeted to fall on the Russian city of Kiev in an attempt to force the Soviets to destroy it with a ''killer'' satellite. The problem: convincing people the story is true and staying one step ahead of the ruthless agencies that won't hesitate to kill as many people as necessary to protect the secret. In all, it's exciting reading.