Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Robert Baer likes to blow his own trumpet

`Blow the House Down' features a Bond-like, erudite and swashbuckling protagonist who resembles the subject of the former CIA officer's first book: himself

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

But if Baer's intention in his new novel is to goad readers into a serious consideration of Iran's possible terrorist connections (a timely subject, given current worries about Iran's nuclear program), he fails in this mission by cavalierly mixing fact and fiction, the credible and the preposterous.

While there are some bravura set pieces in Blow the House Down and some suspenseful sequences that suggest Baer could one day produce a genuinely thrilling thriller, his story is painfully hobbled by its cartoonish central villain: the tycoon David Channing, a fire-breathing nihilist who embodies virtually every ugly trait imaginable (greed, bigotry, sexism, cruelty, hubris and contempt, not to mention an eager willingness to kill thousands of people in order to fill his own pockets) and who spews a disgusting stream of misogynist, anti-Semitic, homo-phobic vitriol.

There are other credibility problems as well. Although Baer uses his firsthand knowledge of tradecraft and out-of-the-way places in the Middle East to create some gritty, tension-filled scenes reminiscent, at best, of John le Carre's work, he creates an equal number of ridiculous scenes in which his hero seems to misplace his training and his common sense.

Would an experienced case officer, convinced that he is being trailed by treacherous enemies, sit down on an airplane, scribble notes to himself on a napkin and then leave that napkin in the seat pouch? Would he then pull out his laptop, type out more notes about the case he is working on and then stow the computer in the overhead rack while he goes off to get a drink?

Such ludicrous scenes, combined with Baer's more ridic-ulous inventions in his story, not only make for an unbelievable thriller but also subvert the more serious points he wants to make about terrorism, intelligence missteps and Sept. 11.

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