A political thriller by Caspar Weinberger?

Reagan's Defense secretary tries his hand at fiction.

A few pages into "Chain of Command," I thought to myself, "Oh no, a poor man's Tom Clancy, and I've still got 350 cliché-laden pages to go."

But after a few more rat-a-tat chapters (typically just two or three pages apiece), I was hooked. Spy-vs.-spy deception, political corruption, threats to Western civilization as we know it, excellent car chases, and really cool weapons. Oh, and the obligatory guy-thriller's dame who, in this case, also happens to be a US Army lieutenant colonel who trains commandos.

Imagine Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir meets "The Fugitive" meets Mr. Clancy's Jack Ryan in "Clear and Present Danger" meets John le Carre (minus the subtlety).

Here's the story line: Senior government officials stage a presidential assassination to make it look as if domestic terrorists are about to take over. Then they urge passage of a super "Patriot Act" to get around the niceties of civil liberties and deploy armed troops in the streets of Washington.

Voilà. The conspirators take over, and order - their view of order - prevails. The future, one supposes, plays out along the dystopian lines of "Fahrenheit 451."

But not if Special Agent Michael Delaney can figure out who's really behind it and avoid the pathological ex-military types deployed to nail him. For Delaney, it's way beyond principle or professionalism - a matter of life and death, because he's been set up to take the fall and has only a few days to expose the plot.

Sound like the scary scenario somebody like left-winger Michael Moore would pen when he's not fighting the good fight against corporate America and its political supporters in a post-9/11 world?

Think again. "Chain of Command" is the work of a staunchly conservative Pentagon ex-chief who served under Ronald Reagan. That would be Caspar "Cap" Weinberger, who was at the helm of the Defense Department while the "evil empire" (i.e., the former Soviet Union) was being whittled down to size by Mr. Reagan and Britain's Margaret "The Iron Lady" Thatcher.

"Ripped from today's headlines" would be the standard phraseology to use when describing what the publisher feels obliged to tell us on the cover is "A Thriller." And in the midst of what the current White House shorthands as the "GWOT" (global war on terrorism), why not?

But is Mr. Weinberger saying that the US remains vulnerable to terrorists who could find it frighteningly easy to slip a radioactive or germ-laden bomb into New York Harbor, for example? Or is he warning that the current panicky and confrontational political atmosphere here and abroad - with "evil-doers" feared across the aisle in Congress as well as in places like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - could start the US down a slippery slope to political repression in the name of homeland security?

It's terrific that you have to get to the last two pages to find out ... and even then you're not sure.

Literature it ain't. But if you like Mr. Clancy and his imitators, "Chain of Command" is for you.

Brad Knickerbocker is on the Monitor staff.

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