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Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010

Beijing conspiracy, New York villainy


ROCK PAPER TIGER, by Lisa Brackman. Soho Press, 2010, 368 pp., $24.99 (hardcover)

CURE, by Robin Cook. Putnam, 2010,

396 pp., $26.95 (hardcover)

Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 film "The Man Who Knew Too Much," in which James Stewart finds himself involved in an assassination plot while in London, and "Frantic," Roman Polansky's 1988 film in which Harrison Ford's wife gets abducted by Paris-based terrorists, stand out as two cinematic thrillers about Americans abroad accidentally ensnared in international intrigues.

Thanks to an original and compelling female protagonist, Lisa Brackman's "Rock Paper Tiger," set mostly in China, might make an equally entertaining film in the hands of a skilled director.

While serving as a military medic in Iraq, Ellie Cooper received a serious leg wound and remains in agony, dependent on a shrinking supply of painkillers. After leaving the military she accompanied her American husband — who she'd met in the military but is now employed as a "private security consultant" (as civilian mercenaries are now called) — to Beijing, where he's forsaken her for a local woman.

By now conversant in Chinese, Cooper had struck up a friendship with Lao Zhang, a Chinese avant garde artist who's out of favor with the authorities. Through the artist, Cooper inadvertently meets a member of China's Muslim minority who everybody seems to be hunting, due perhaps to suspected terrorist ties.

In the hope she'll lead them to their prey, Cooper is tailed by a couple of Americans from her husband's company, by members of China's public security apparatus and by others whose sympathies are dubious at best.

Since Cooper has no "need to know," she's left to speculate at what's actually happening. In her justifiably paranoid state, she switches off her cell phone and stops using e-mails to communicate. Instead she relies on pay phones or by slipping into net cafes and logging onto a virtual online game in which players, including Lao Zhang, assume the role of mythological avatars. But are the avatars to be trusted? Is anyone?

The story in the present alternates with flashbacks of Cooper's nightmarish experiences in Iraq. Brackman maintains the tension throughout, and we're given a surrealist peek at China's subterranean society through the disapproving eyes of a shell-shocked American female war veteran — one who has been badly let down by her own comrades in arms.

Yakuza in the Big Apple

In "Cure," medical thriller writer Robin Cook ties stem cell research to high-tech investments by crime syndicates.

In what starts out as a sort of update to Ridley Scott's 1988 thriller "Black Rain," a pair of yakuza hit men descend on the Big Apple. Working with their drug smuggling partners, a branch of the local mafia, they assassinate a Japanese scientist who'd absconded with stem cell research data from Kyoto University.

Protagonist Laurie Montgomery, New York's chief medical examiner, is assigned to perform an autopsy on an Asian man with no identification, who has died suspiciously on a subway platform. The cause of death proves elusive and the mystery deepens.

Meanwhile, an entire Asian family, except for one infant, is found shot to death execution-style across the river in New Jersey. While the investigators work to piece together the connection, the yakuza are planning a heist to steal back the dead scientist's lab notes.

Aware of Montgomery's reputation for tenacity, the local bad guys try to warn her off the case, and when their initial effort fails they abduct her toddler son, slaying the boy's nanny in the process.

Cook, a Harvard-trained physician well known for such medical thrillers as "Coma" and "Outbreak," unfortunately appears out of his league this time. Although he identifies an actual Kyoto gang by name, his descriptions of scenes in Japan, not to mention yakuza tactics and methods, are unconvincing. In this case, it seems, the "Cure" is worse than the disease.



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