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Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Tibetan terror rules the waves

THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. New York: Warner Books, 2007, 388 pp., $25.99 (cloth)

Tales of suspense that incorporate obscure aspects of the supernatural from ancient civilizations have long enjoyed a popular following. Take William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" (1971), a huge best-seller and blockbuster film about the spine-chilling repercussions from exhuming an Iraqi demon.

William Kotzwinkle, best known as the creator of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," spun a masterpiece in "The Game of Thirty," (1994) in which a New York detective is forced to match wits with a murderer using a board game once played by ancient Egyptian pharaohs.

Tibet — very much in the news these days for other reasons — has also been a long-standing favorite topic for novelists. The most famous example would almost certainly be James Hilton's immortal "Lost Horizon," the story of the mystical land of Shangri-La, published in 1933.

"The Wheel of Darkness" is the collaborators' eighth in a series of thrillers, and quite creative in that it combines Asian esoterica with a hair-raising nautical thriller.

The narrative begins with the arrival of two Americans at a hidden Tibetan lamasery. Protagonist Aloysius Pendergast, an FBI special agent, is accompanied by Constance Greene, who has a good reason for needing full-strength therapeutic meditation: She was responsible for the death of Pendergast's evil younger brother. No attempt is made to explain how an FBI agent can obtain a prolonged leave of absence to meditate in Tibet. Even less plausible is how lamas could be persuaded to admit a female to their monastery.

Tsering . . . walked over to Constance and stood before her, looking calmly into her face, and then reached up and touched her hair . . . . Then, ever so gently, he reached out and touched the swell of her breasts, first one, then the other. She remained standing, unflinching.

"Are you a woman?" he asked. "Surely you've seen a woman before," said Constance dryly. "No," said Tsering. "I have not seen a woman since I came here — at the age of two."

But the monastery has more pressing problems than admitting a female: A relic called the "Agozyen" — an object with powers so unspeakably dreadful even the lamas entrusted to its protection don't dare view the thing — has gone missing.

Pendergast soon tracks the stolen Agozyen to the maiden voyage of the "Britannia," the world's most opulent ocean liner. No mere cruise ship, this is a floating palace, a high-tech pleasure dome combining the Waldorf-Astoria, Maxim's de Paris, Rodeo Drive and Monte Carlo rolled into one.

Once aboard the Britannia, the evil Agozyen finds itself with a captive audience and bodies soon start piling up — or getting thrown overboard. As the ship's small security staff tries to keep 2,700 passengers from panicking, the officers stage a mutiny.

Hero Pendergast boasts the deductive logic of Sherlock Holmes and the superhuman powers of Maxwell Grant's "Shadow." But where is he while all hell's breaking loose? Infected by the Agozyen's evil aura — so don't count on him to save the day.

This book is truly a reincarnation of the old pulp magazines and cliffhanger matinees. Pass the popcorn.

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