CURRENT events in the Middle East couldn't be better for first-time novelist William Nixon, whose ``Strategic Compromise'' is a toe-tingling read that should quicken the pulse of even the most calloused techno-thriller buffs. The cold war may be over, but continuing international unrest gives savvy authors plenty to write about. Just as the White House gets cozy with the Soviets, Nixon hits us with an East vs. West cliffhanger on a secret United States plan to deploy the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
The novel opens at the US Embassy in Rome, where American journalist Robert (Malibu) Hamilton is called away from a diplomatic soiree to a grisly murder scene involving a US Senator. In the next 34 chapters, the words seem to melt from the page as the reader races with Hamilton to piece together what may be the newspaper scoop of the century. You don't just read this book, you feel it! Nixon's tone in the book may be a bit hawkish to some, with the balance of dialogue clearly supportive of SDI. The author might point to recent events in the Middle East as sufficient reason. At a time when at least 15 countries could produce ballistic missiles by the year 2000, Nixon may actually underestimate the importance of SDI.
Nixon leads the reader through two stories, laid out in alternating chapters. One is told through the eyes of Malibu, who never met a national security secret he didn't want to print on Page 1. His investigative efforts to uncover covert US plans to complete a ``Star Wars'' satellite umbrella have made him the target of Soviet agents - who don't want to wait for press time to get the news. The other story follows Sergio Castillo Armando, a Soviet hit man, whose adept knife-handling skills would impress even Julia Childs - although she might not enjoy the entree.
The parallels between the two protagonists are discomforting, as if Nixon feels there is little difference between US and Soviet motives. One might assume he imagines members of the Fourth Estate as no more than terrorists with typewriters. This impression is reinforced when one character describes reporters as ``leeches on misery,'' and another calls journalists ``cutthroats, the kind of people who come down from the mountains after the battle and kill all the wounded.''
This novel is a nice change from books that suffer from character-flooding, that is, presenting the reader with so many characters it is necessary to keep notes. Nixon creates a handful of meaningful players, each challenged through circumstance with keen moral ambiguities.
Violence in the book is frightening, but not too graphic, and sex is used romantically, more like a tease than an X-rated movie. Malibu's relationship with a Hollywood starlet turned Soviet agent is always on the verge - of what we never find out.
Subplots abound, like mysterious branches off a swift-flowing river. These diverse tributaries contribute to the story's development and allow Nixon to show off more of his storytelling acumen. Even so, some readers may feel Malibu is a bit too invincible, as when he dives in front of a bus with a broken rib or when he takes a few too many bullets. At times, he seems more like the Incredible Hulk than a mere journalist. Some may also be disappointed with the story's conclusion, which is somewhat predictable.
A former Washington speech writer and current Senatorial aide, Nixon knows his way around the nation's capital, both figuratively and literally. The climax of the book takes place in the catacombs of the Capitol's basement - a labyrinth of tunnels and hidden offices only old-timers and tiny rodents can escape without a map. His first novel may introduce a new genre of fiction-on-fact thrillers that do more than simply entertain. No gratuitous guts and blood, just edge-of-the-seat, up-all-night, don't-dare-put-it-down suspense that represents the best of the craft. Catch this guy right down off the gate, he's an author you'll be racing to read for years to come.