Summer may be drawing to a close, but it's not too late to pick up that staple of at-the-beach reading - the thriller. And it's hard to go wrong when you choose among the latest bestsellers churned out by experienced practitioners of the genre.
WITHOUT REMORSE, by Tom Clancy (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 639 pp., $24.95). Tom Clancy certainly falls into the ``experienced'' category. Although he rose to fame with cold-war fiction (``The Hunt for Red October,'' ``Red Storm Rising''), he has proved equally adept at exploring such post-cold-war dangers as nuclear terrorism (``The Sum of All Fears'').
Now, in ``Without Remorse,'' Clancy goes back in time to the early 1970s when the cold war was in full swing. But for a twist, he focuses most of his attention on the home front as ex-Navy commando John Kelly systematically eradicates a drug ring in Baltimore. When he isn't busy battling drug dealers, Kelly finds time to lead a mission into North Vietnam to rescue American prisoners-of-war.
``Without Remorse'' has many of Clancy's trademark touches, such as loving descriptions of mechanical operations (in this case, how to make a silencer and how to operate a boat, among others). To spice things up, Clancy adds a little romance as well, but he clearly feels more comfortable dealing with the men-only world of combat.
As with many other Clancy thrillers, this 639-page monster takes a while to get going. My recommendation: Skip the first 100 pages and you'll enjoy the well-crafted plot a lot more.
THUNDER POINT, by Jack Higgins (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $22.95, 320 pp.), suffers from the opposite fault: Instead of brimming over with information and plot elements, this book is a little too sparse. The plot is of the most elementary sort and, although well executed, contains few surprises.
This novel stars two previous Higgins creations: Sean Dillon, the former Irish terrorist, and Brigadier Charles Ferguson, who heads a top-secret group in British Intelligence. This time, the former enemies are working together in an attempt to salvage a German submarine that sank off the Virgin Islands in 1945. Aboard are documents left behind by Adolf Hitler's top aide, Martin Bormann, implicating leading British aristocrats with Nazi sympathies. Dillon and Ferguson want to deep-six the documents, but a powerful neo-Nazi industrialist wants to recover them for his own nefarious purposes.
Many of the scenes in ``Thunder Point'' take place beneath the waters of the Caribbean. Higgins, who is himself an avid diver, brings real enthusiasm to chronicling the underwater adventures of his protagonists. That's the best part of this otherwise predictable story.
HONOR AMONG THIEVES, by Jeffrey Archer (HarperCollins, 381 p., $23). Jeffrey Archer's imaginatively plotted seventh thriller, set in May 1993, centers on a plan by Saddam Hussein to steal the Declaration of Independence as a way of humiliating incoming President Clinton. The best parts of ``Honor Among Thieves'' occur early on as the Mafia types hired by Saddam mount an ingenious operation to liberate the document from the National Archives and replace it with a brilliant forgery.
Once the Declaration of Independence has been spirited to Baghdad, it's up to our heroes - novice Israeli agent Hannah Kopec and Scott Bradley, a Yale law professor improbably moonlighting for the CIA - to get it back. Of course, that proves to be no easy task, since Saddam's wily thugs always seem to be one step ahead of the good guys.
What really sets ``Honor Among Thieves'' apart is its real-life backdrops. Bradley meets with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Mr. Clinton. Saddam and his Revolutionary Command Council play a major role. And, at the end, Bernard Shaw, the CNN anchorman, has a small but crucial part in the story.
While in the hands of another author this mixture of fiction and reality might be a bit clunky, Archer carries it off with aplomb and good wit. But then what else would you expect from a writer whose own life reads like a novel - a man who was a member of the British House of Commons and now is in the House of Lords, surmounted a financial collapse, and won a major libel suit against a London newspaper?