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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SUSPENSE: Spy-versus-spy in new thriller crop

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There must be an espionage thriller for every person (living or dead) who ever worked for the CIA and every other intelligence agency -- even as a temp.

Most are reliably cheesy, with interchangeable spy or "special forces" heroes and gung-ho, over-the-top plots. But a few writers, like the venerable John le Carré, manage to convey a glimpse of the hidden world. Here's a sampling of the current crop.

For pure, serpentine spycraft, it's hard to beat the travails of Milo Weaver. In An American Spy (Minotaur, 400 pages, $30), Olen Steinhauer's sequel to The Tourist and The Nearest Exit, the banged-up, opted-out CIA agent is hauled back into the fray by both the Chinese spymaster who wiped out his black-ops division and his revenge-bent former boss.

Spy-versus-spy machinations flourish and multiply, but it's the devious and deadly intrigue of the Chinese intelligence coterie that provides the kinetic juice for this intricate tale.

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Former Virginia lawyer David Baldacci is a mainstay of the grand-conspiracy trade, so why not stick with the tried-and-true -- yet another presidential assassination gambit? The Innocent (Grand Central, 432 pages, $30) features off-the-books government hit-man Will Robie developing a conscience long enough to take a teenage victim under his wing and foil the plottings of an evil Saudi prince.

While Baldacci is smooth, efficient and practised at the high-octane game, the weight of ever-more-outlandish scenarios puts him firmly in the fantasy-fluff category.

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It had to happen: mix guns and greed, and Wall Street warfare takes on a whole new meaning. When shady high-rollers start dropping in Mike Cooper's Clawback (Viking, 400 pages, $29), worried financiers call in ex-black-ops type Silas Cade, an anonymous, down-and-dirty "accountant" who fixes problems -- permanently.

Of course, the tables soon turn, and Silas has cops, mercenaries and an ambitious and comely business blogger on his tail. With non-stop action, accessible insider manoeuvres and a distinctive, fallible lead, it's a smart and sassy debut for this former Boston financial exec. Here's a hot tip: Get in on the ground floor with Cade and Cooper.

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It may be the limits of the venue finally showing, but Force of Nature (Putnam, 400 pages, $28), the 12th Joe Picket tale from Wyoming author C.J. Box, finds the (not literally) straight-shooting game warden reduced to an everyman foil for his pal Nate Romanowski, a guilt-ridden, off-the-grid U.S. Special Forces vet.

When Nate's former boss decides to bury a lucrative side-deal dating from pre-war Afghanistan by interring his old crew, it's a familiar cat-and-mouse game with a snowy, backwoods flavour. There's the usual credibility gaps and familiar genre characters, but Box knows his craft, wrapping sustained tension in an entertaining package.

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Gray, another wandering ex-soldier with a bloody past (Africa) and a secret (a murder in the family) washes up on the California coast, in Tom Epperson's Sailor (Forge, 352 pages, $29). Here, he meets a former New Jersey Mafia wife and her son, on the lam from competing baddies -- a mob hit team and a crooked U.S. marshal and his redneck crew.

Bonding and bodies ensue in a book-spanning chase sequence, told in quick-cut multiple viewpoints across multiple states. As befits an L.A. screenwriter, it's a jangly script in development.

John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J9

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