After seven superb novels with military settings that range from future world wars to backwater skirmishes in the wake of the Soviet breakup, Ralph Peters makes a stylistic departure in "Traitor."
The theme that the honorable soldier is considered a highly expendable asset by politicians and Pentagon desk-types is not new for Peters. But this time, the action takes place among the power brokers of Washington, D.C., instead of some remote jerkwater hellhole.
OK, maybe "Traitor" isn't so different after all.
Lt. Col. John Reynolds has just buried his mentor and best friend, General Farnsworth. Together, they had been opposing congressional approval of the next generation fighter bomber.
In a military stretched thin by senseless deployments and budget cuts, where ammunition is in short supply and soldiers' families qualify for food stamps, Reynolds and Farnsworth thought the $300-billion price tag too high.
After the funeral, Emerson Carrol, a former Army buddy who is now a defense contractor lobbyist, suggests that Farnsworth's death may not have been a jogger-vs.-car accident but a murder.
The next thing Reynolds knows, Em Carrol is dead, too, and his terrified girlfriend, Corry, is looking to Reynolds for help and answers.
Some heavy hitters, both domestic and foreign, are under the impression that Reynolds has computer disks containing a secret about the fighter bomber that some people would kill for - and others have.
When his car explodes after he lends his keys to his spiky haired, rock-'n'-rolling lover, Tish, a grief-stricken Reynolds realizes that he will have to get to the bottom of things himself.
But stakes of $300 billion mean that a lot of people see their ticket to the stuff that dreams are made of. Some are willing to cross the line into traitorous action, while others convince themselves in self-serving arguments that they are merely acting in the national interest.
Reynolds finds that the people who seem most interested in helping him - especially a certain blonde - are the last people he should trust. He finds himself alone, not knowing whom to believe, desperately trying to hang on to his moral foundations in a world that seems to have none.
"Traitor" is a tribute to the great noir films of the '50s, with the reluctant hero innocently caught in a web of other people's corruption and pursued by a mysterious blonde who may be the most dangerous of them all.
Gradually, all of Reynolds' illusions about the world are stripped away, and the man who has followed orders for a living, must now decide for himself what is worth fighting - and possibly dying - for.
From the halls of the Pentagon to Arlington Cemetery, from the Virginia estates of the Washington high-rollers to seedy downtown bars, "Traitor" is a nonstop exercise in suspense.
Two things really set this thriller apart. One, the plot not only holds up under scrutiny, but it also actually provokes thought, and two, Peters tells his story in taught, spare prose, avoiding the bloat of most "big" suspense novels. Thus, he's able to bring "Traitor" in at just over 300 pages.
The plot's twists and turns ring true because the characters are also complex. Reynolds finds corruption in unexpected places - and help from even less predictable sources.
The bad guys may be wrong, but they aren't always incorrect. Reynolds' confrontations with a legendary Special Forces general with indeterminate loyalties are chilling and bracingly smart.
Peters, a retired Army colonel, has become one of our finest novelists. He writes with Raymond Chandler's powers of observation, Graham Greene's insight into the effects of corruption and cynicism on the soul and Nelson DeMille 's ability to weave a compelling mystery with a military setting.
"Traitor" has a political point about the corrupting influence of big money crowding out the real needs of the soldiers in the field.
In real life, however, it's not what is illegal in Washington but what is legal that is the real shame. That is a bit obscured by a plot that involves wholesale murder, torture and terrorism.