kirkus reviews

Authors shed light on 'Mob,' 'Surveillance,' 'Testament'

When the going gets tough, the tough get nosy. Jonathan Raban, a British travel writer-turned-fiction writer and now a resident of rain-soaked Seattle, has confessed to feeling a little uneasy as an alien in this country. His new novel, "Surveillance" (Pantheon, $24), shows why. In some ways, it's a modern rejoinder to Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Conversation": The Department of Homeland Security runs the country, everyone is suspected of thought crimes if not actual treason, and people are just a little freaked out.

Tad Zachary has made hay while the searchlights have been shining, getting big bucks to act in DHS videos, not bad for a so-so actor in a dismal economy. His friend Lucy is a journalist who hasn't had much meaty work since the downturn; she has been supporting her young daughter — a bright girl with a fascination for Anne Frank — by writing travelogues. Then the phone rings, and Lucy gets an assignment to profile an elusive retired professor, August Vanags, whose new World War II-era memoir has been making quite a stir — and it slowly develops for all the wrong reasons. In the end, the book is about privacy, a near-extinct thing in Raban's parallel universe. Lucy laments having to poke into people's lives, and Tad responds, "Everybody's trying to spy on everybody else. At least you know you're a spook, which is something. Most people are in denial." In that climate, it makes sense to be paranoid, a notion that has driven plenty of good films over the years.

Now, the safest job in the world, once upon a time, was to be a mobster while J. Edgar Hoover was running the FBI. By something both sides might like to have called a gentleman's agreement, the feds left the gangsters alone, and in exchange they didn't kill any feds. There are hints of all that in the "Godfather" films and elsewhere, but the modern era, when the heat got turned up, is uncharted territory. Thomas Reppetto, a retired detective, offers solid background with "Bringing Down the Mob" (Henry Holt, $26). Although his account is full of sociopaths with such colorful names as Little Cigar and the Camel, Reppetto demystifies the crime business: "In economic terms, a typical mob family was like a large law firm in which senior partners make a very good living off the work of the juniors and associates." Tough anti-racketeering laws began to take their toll on the Mafia in the decades following Hoover, Reppetto writes, but after Sept. 11, 2001, not much attention is being paid to organized crime, which makes a fine opening for a revised and repurposed 21st century mob. Which is where "The Sopranos" comes in. …

If Kit Carson had been running the FBI, things would have been different. He was quick to use knife and gun when the time was right, but he was usually slow to anger, which made him a highly useful figure on a frontier that needed more calm than it saw. As Hampton Sides writes in "Blood and Thunder" (Doubleday, $26.95), Carson moved in three worlds — Anglo, Hispanic and Native — and came to be respected in each of them. Sides nicely complicates their inhabitants' stories so that they emerge as warts-and-all humans rather than misty figures of legend; Carson might have been respected, but there's a reason we associate him with the mindless violence of the frontier, exemplified by a fellow who now figures prominently on the map of the West but who then wrote to the Smithsonian following the death of a Native elder: "I very much regret that I had not procured Narbona's cranium, as I think he had the finest head I ever saw on an Indian." A careful screenwriter could make another Little Big Man out of Sides' tale or an epic every bit as sober as "Gods and Generals."

Eric Van Lustbader's "The Testament" (Forge, $24.95) posits a secret Catholic cult that harbors a secret so faith-shaking that Christianity might collapse were it known. They're willing to kill for it. If the setup sounds familiar, that's no fault of the author, who writes circles around Dan Brown in any event. His hero is a kind of scholarly ninja, a Daniel Craig Bond with a library card. Our man knows how to love and fight, to say nothing of pray. When his father, a higher-up in the cult, gets blown up by baddies in the service of the pope, then all hell breaks loose. Our hero gets to go up against some interesting villains, including a pretty girl with a rather skimpy suit of armor and a talent for making men talk. Blend "The Bourne Supremacy" with "The Name of the Rose," and you're in the neighborhood — and if that isn't high concept, I don't know what is.