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Sunday, March 21, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Wrong ways to a Shanghai potboiler thriller


SHANGHAI, by Donald G. Moore. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse Inc., 2003, 218 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

ROBERT LUDLUM'S THE ALTMAN CODE, by Robert Ludlum and Gayle Lynds. New York: St. Martin's Paperback, 2004, 496 pp., $7.99 (paper).

Brand-name thriller

"Robert Ludlum's The Altman Code" is part of a growing trend in which publishers harness the name and reputation of a veteran writer to promote works in a similar genre, which in Ludlum's case would be spy thrillers.

A renegade member of China's Standing Committee has arranged to supply Iraq with a shipload of chemicals for manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. The United States doesn't dare move to intercept the ship until its intelligence agents can obtain a copy of the manifest. Based on a clue scribbled on a Starbucks napkin, U.S. agent Jon Smith -- an awfully suspicious name for a spy -- heads for Shanghai to obtain the incriminating document. To find this veritable needle in a haystack, Uncle Sam, incredibly, assigns a Caucasian agent who sticks out like a sore thumb and doesn't know a word of Chinese. The narrative, of course, has been rendered obsolete by subsequent events. Ludlum's fans probably won't care, since they'll be getting a classic Ludlum-style thriller -- even if the setting, story and characters are implausible and the author was someone else.

The Moore the merrier

"Shanghai" takes place in 1939 -- the period between the Marco Polo Bridge incident and the outbreak of the Pacific War. Newly arrived American journalist Josh Miller meets Julie Grant, the half-Chinese daughter of an antique merchant, and the two unexpectedly find themselves wrapped up in the struggle involving local Chinese thugs and the Japanese kempeitai (military police) for a priceless sarcophagus looted from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang,the first emperor.

Over a span of two years, Moore has published four other thrillers, all set in the Far East. They are not badly written, but his generally weak research and reliance on stereotyped plots make them reminiscent of old Hollywood B movies.



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