RUN JANE RUN By Maureen Tan The Mysterious Press 274 pp., $22
THE PRODIGAL SPY By Joseph Kanon Broadway Books 409 pp., $25
Escaping the jaws of hungry alligators. Slipping behind enemy lines to steal top-secret microfilm. Parachuting from Gibraltar to dine with a beautiful woman.
The life of a secret agent is hard- boiled - filled with suspense, intrigue, and romantic liaisons.
Since Ian Fleming created James Bond, nearly every guy has dreamed of leaving his mundane job to become 008 or 009.
Well, move over Mr. Bond. There's a new spy in town: The name's Nichols, Jane Nichols. And she makes Emma Peel seem as tame as Aunt Bea.
Run Jane Run, by Maureen Tan, proves that women can flex muscle in the male-dominated spy-novel genre.
Jane enjoys a simple life in Savannah, Ga. She writes bestselling mystery and spy novels in her spare time. But mostly, she reflects on her glory days with British intelligence when she was an integral part of covert operations and life-threatening missions.
Out of the blue, MI-5 summons Jane back to England. She jumps at the opportunity.
Her assignment: to rescue the nephew of a member of Parliament who has been kidnapped. Piece of cake, she believes, until she discovers that the hostage refuses her help. He likes it just fine where he is.
Jane barely escapes the onslaught of attacks on her life with the cunning of Robin Hood and the grace of Audrey Hepburn. After her home in England is burned, she lives like a fugitive in constant fear for her life. The story reaches its climax back in Savannah, where Jane sets a trap for a ruthless murderer - and she's the bait.
"Run Jane Run," is a light read with just enough twists and turns to keep the plot moving swiftly. Although Jane's love life sometimes bogs down the plot, her female-spy vantage point is particularly refreshing.
The Prodigal Spy, by Joseph Kanon, mixes a dash of Bond with a spoonful of cold-war history. The novel examines the underworld of counterintelligence when America's interest in secret agents reached its zenith.
It's the early 1950s. Nick Kotlar's father is in hot water. Walter Kotlar, an undersecretary at the Department of State, has been hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. A fiery, McCarthy-like congressman has charged him with stealing American secrets for the Russians.
But before the trial is concluded, Walter defects to Russia and admits to his clandestine affairs. To young Nick, his father might as well be dead.
Fast forward 20 years. Nick is visiting Europe where he meet a mysterious and beautiful journalist. She delivers a disturbing message: Walter is living in Prague and would like very much to see his son. Nick reluctantly agrees.
Walter tells Nick that he wishes to return to America. He believes he can do so by divulging the names of Rus-sian spies still operating in Washington in exchange for his freedom. He enlists Nick to help - and the cloak-and-dagger games begin.
Back in Washington, Nick encounters a dubious and dangerous agent who will stop at nothing to hide his identity. Nick's life is in grave danger. Will he survive? Does his father return to America? Does Nick get the girl?
Although the ending isn't as suspenseful as it should be, the novel comes to a smooth conclusion.
"The Prodigal Spy" is pure fiction, but Kanon paints an astounding picture of the political atmosphere of the '50s through the '70s. The novel's premise - what if the communist witch-hunts had actually uncovered a spy? - is clever. And Kanon's mix of history and fiction gives his characters a vivid sense of authenticity.
*John Christian Hoyle is a Monitor intern.