Clancy's latest tackles Star Wars, glasnost, and Afghanistan

The Cardinal of the Kremlin, by Tom Clancy. New York: Putnam. 543 pp. $19.95. Tom Clancy's latest thriller, ``The Cardinal of the Kremlin'' is his best to date. In it, he equals the breakneck pace he set in ``The Hunt for Red October,'' continues to explore the realm of the technologically possible that was the background of ``Red Storm Rising,'' and expands on the understanding of human strengths and foibles he showed in ``Patriot Games.''

After writing about scenarios for World War III and the threats of international terrorism, Clancy isn't about to sit back on his best-seller laurels and diddle around with the easily resolved. In fact, he's apparently out to challenge his own standard of timely suspense by tackling three morally and technically vexing issues at once: development of so-called Star Wars technology, Soviet glasnost, and the war in Afghanistan. As his sub-plots churn and bubble, he keeps a watchful eye on each narrative pot and adds tingly new ingredients at just the right moments. The result is a captivating page-turner of intrigue.

Briefly, CIA strategist John Ryan, returned to the action from ``The Hunt for Red October,'' is involved with arms negotiations in Moscow at the same time the military brass hats in both countries are trying to get their respective laser-defense systems off the ground. Ryan depends on information being passed by a long-time Russian mole, the ``Cardinal'' of the title, and the Soviets have their spies at work in Los Alamos, too. Meanwhile, there's a band of Afghan mujaheddin about to descend on a new Soviet base, and alliances within the ruling politburo are shifting faster than you can shout ``Nyet - enough already!''

Clancy's Medusa-like twists of espionage and counterespionage defy detection, and his grasp of the theoretical and applied strategems involved in military defense is impressive. What continues to distinguish his work from much of what is published in the spy-thriller genre today, however, is his humanity. His treatment of friendship and loyalty radiates warmth and integrity, and from Page 1 on, readers care about what happens to his characters, whether they're stalwart Soviet old-timers or nerdy American physicist/geeks. He may occasionally set up a psychological shocker, as in his description of the torture exacted by sensory-deprivation tanks in a notorious KGB prison, but he never sinks to the kind of brutal savagery and deviant sex that have seriously flawed recent novels by fellow thriller writer Robert Ludlum. Clancy, by contrast, just keeps getting better and wiser.

Diane Manuel reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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