THIS spring has seen a bumper crop of books that go bump in the night. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, it seemed for a time that the writers of suspense fiction and detection would lack a focus for their plots. But with the ingenuity that is their stock in trade, they have simply reached farther afield in time and space to spin their stories. The surfacing of many of the secrets of the cold-war period has been a helpful contribution, and some writers have even drawn on half-forgotten mysteries of W orld War II. Distant places and technology have supplied interesting material, and so have the hazards of nuclear proliferation.
Washington, London, and the high, windy places where power lies are an unfailing source of material. The aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, and the recognition that Saddam Hussein is a clear and present danger, provide some intriguing backgrounds.
Here for summer pleasure are some of the current thrillers, culled from the work of tried-and-true performers, and some exciting newcomers.
Len Deighton, the old master who gave us "Funeral in Berlin," "The Ipcress File," and many others, is in top form in his new novel, City of Gold (HarperCollins, 375 pp., $20). The background is Cairo in the winter of 1942. Gen. Erwin Rommel is on his North African rampage, which threatens the "City of Gold." Worse still, the legendary Desert Fox has a spy in place who passes his every move of the Allied strategy of defense. Maj. Bert Cutler, a Glasgow police officer, has the special assignment of winnowi ng the spies, saboteurs, and deserters in the beleaguered city and cutting off the leak. How he does so, making possible the spectacular British victory at El Alamein, forms a thriller rooted in fact and rich in the climate of suspense.
Like author Robin White, the two protagonists in his highly technical drama, Angle of Attack (Crown Publishers, 291 pp., $20), are both skilled pilots. One - the male - is a world-class stunt flier. The other is a Lithuanian woman physicist, who also competes in aerobatics. The time is the eve of the Persian Gulf war. It is the task of the two pilots to fit together the pieces of a world-menacing puzzle concerning the real motives behind Saddam Hussein's attack and how it ties in with the Soviet developm ent of an unstoppable antimissile missile. In the dedication that opens the story, White reminds us that "All Flight is Miraculous." In his prose, with echoes of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, he almost makes us believe so.
"The Red Fox," Anthony Hyde's first thriller, was an international bestseller. Now comes China Lake (Alfred A. Knopf, 338 pp., $22), more convoluted in plot, but written with the same high seriousness and intensity. The lake in the title is nowhere near China and is only a string of dried up water holes in the Mojave Desert, 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It is a mythical naval-weapons test center that has produced "some of the most effective military ordnance in the world." Its greatest achievement
was the Sidewinder, the heat-seeking antiaircraft missile first produced in the early 1950s. The Soviets added it to their arsenal in 1961, copying it intact. Who stole the plans? Jack Tannis, the one-time security officer at the test station, picks up a near-bewildering trail of intrigue and murder that leads to Scotland, Wales, East Germany, and finally back to China Lake.
Margaret Truman "knows the forks" in the nation's capital and how to pitchfork her readers into a web of murder and detection. The White House, the Supreme Court, and an embassy have been some of the scenes of her 10 Washington novels. Now she turns to the Pentagon and presents an appealing new heroine, Air Force Maj. Margit Falk, in Murder at the Pentagon (Random House, 291 pp., $21). A Middle Eastern despot sets off a nuclear missile in the desert. Shortly thereafter a top antimissile scientist under c ontract to the Defense Department is killed.
Are the two episodes linked? Why are the top Pentagon officials who assign Falk to unravel the murder anxious to have her not delve too deeply?
Edinburgh-based Dorothy Dunnett is something of a cult figure. Her historical novels are world famous, and her six intricate stories in the field of suspense are adding to her fame. (The latest literary convention held in her honor was Dorothy Dunnett Day at Boston College last month.)
Like Dunnett herself, the hero of this seventh novel, Send a Fax to the Kasbah (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 352 pp., $21.95), is a portrait painter. His intriguing name is Johnson Johnson. Hired to paint Sir Robert Kingsley, head of a staid London conglomerate where nice heroine Wendy Helman works, he is interrupted by an explosion in the home office.
Sir Robert flies his entourage to Morocco, ostensibly so that the painter can finish his portrait. In actual fact he is fighting an ominous takeover. Chases on horseback through the souks of Marrakech! A vintage-car race in the high Atlas Mountains! A fatal fax sent to the Kasbah!
Adam Hall, British citizen and pilot, won the coveted Edgar Award with his first novel about Agent Quiller. Now in Quiller Solitaire (William Morrow & Company, 286 pp., $20), his 16th exploit, Quiller is as resourceful as ever. His solo assignment is the penetration of Nemesis, a group of Euro-terrorist fanatics under a psychopathic leader. This is a real killer-diller, with a quiverful of false clues and a fair quota of high suspense. Quiller is an operator in line of succession to James Bond himself.
Baltimore-born Susan Crosland was for 13 years the wife of British Foreign Secretary Anthony Crosland. After his death she wrote his biography and a novel, "Ruling Passions," both of which were bestsellers in England. Her first American appearance, Dangerous Games (Random House, 294 pp., $20), is a latter-day "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." This is not a straight thriller, but an aura of suspense hangs over the forays of an American political correspondent and a British Cabinet officer in the world of the po werful.
In Embrace the Serpent (Crown Publishers, 307 pp., $20) by Marilyn T. Quayle and Nancy T. Northcott, Fidel Castro is dead. He keels over while speaking, either from poison or natural causes. The event revives ambitions repressed for 30 years of his harsh rule. The action covers four days, with mounting tension. The Russians, anxious to regain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere, wish to install a stooge called Cesar Valles. The United States is backing imprisoned General Moya.
There is no question that the instant success of this well-paced yarn received an initial boost from the fact that it is written by the vice president's wife and her sister. But it is making its way on its own considerable merits. (The authors have no fear of the cliche. They even paraphrase Lord Acton without attribution: "Power, or more accurately the love of power, was a subtle corrupter.")