TOM SANDERS works for a high-tech company about to be acquired by a conservative manufacturer of textbooks. After helping his wife get the children fed, Mr. Sanders arrives late in his office. He senses something is wrong: Employees seem embarrassed to see him.
Sanders soon learns there has been a reorganization and he has been passed over to head the division. Who's the new boss? A woman - an attractive blonde who also happens to be an ex-girl- friend of his.
From here on, Michael Crichton's latest novel, ``Disclosure,'' takes readers on a controversial ride. Sexual harassment is the theme, and the blonde does the harassing. It seems she has a history of this: Her nickname in the company is ``Meredith Manmuncher.'' On her first day as Sanders's boss, she tries to reignite their old physical relationship in a demanding way.
Meredith Johnson, Vassar graduate, Stanford MBA, gets away with it because she reminds the chairman of the company of his daughter, who was killed by a drunk driver. The chairman, Bob Garvin, also wants to ensure that there is equal opportunity - or even a tilting of the playing field toward women - in his company.
``And I keep coming back to the idea that we have to make allowances for women. We have to cut them a little slack,'' he tells Sanders in an attempt to end the dispute that threatens to flare into a lawsuit by Sanders. The suit, both men know, could kill the merger with the publicity-shy textbook company.
Crichton, as he has done in other books, finds a way to combine high technology and sexual relations. It has been a best-selling combination for this author of eight previous works of fiction, including ``Jurassic Park'' and ``Rising Sun,'' and has often led to movie contracts. ``Disclosure'' is no exception: A studio has already bought the rights.
In fact, the novel is written in a sort of Hollywood style: The narrative is tight, and most of the book is dialogue. The characters are believable even if they are dull. Crichton's pace makes this book a good winter read. But readers should be forewarned: ``Disclosure'' has some explicit sexual dialogue and one seduction scene.
Sanders's attorney, Louise Fernandez, tells her beleaguered client that 25 percent of all sexual-harassment cases are brought by men. Most of these are brought against male bosses, but this fictional lawyer says one-fifth of the 25 percent are brought against women bosses. ``And, the number is increasing all the time, as we have more women bosses in the workplace,'' Fernandez says, adding, ``And from my point of view, it's to be expected.''
Expected? Yes, Fernandez says, since sexual harassment is about power - ``the undue exercise of power by a superior over a subordinate.'' The attorney says she sees little difference between men and women when it comes to abusing power.
(Crichton's book is fiction and so are his harassment figures. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, men file only 9 percent of all harassment charges. The EEOC has no idea how many are filed against male or female bosses, since the sex of the person charged is not listed.)
As Sanders quickly finds out - and as women have known for years - winning a sexual harassment case against a company is tough. In most cases, there are no witnesses. It can seem as if the plaintiff is on trial rather than the company. And it can take three years for a case to come to trial.
But not in this book. Crichton compresses all the action into four days. And, of course, high technology comes to the rescue.