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Book News

A 'first-rate yarn'

'Sins of the Fathers'
by John Blackthorn

William Morrow & Co., $25

Review by L.D. Meagher

May 25, 1999
Web posted at: 2:38 p.m. EDT (1838 GMT)

(CNN) -- And you thought the Cold War was over. Even now, the "long twilight struggle" continues -- if nowhere else -- in the pages of spy novels.

"Sins of the Fathers" is a clever updating of the classic "spy vs. spy" formula. Author John Blackthorn (about whom, more later) deftly weaves a fiction into the fabric of history. The novel is actually two stories intertwined. One takes place in Cuba during 1998. The other unfolded in the same place 36 years earlier.

Just suppose, Blackthorn tells us, one of the Soviet military officers sent to Cuba during the Missile Crisis of 1962 managed to stash a couple of small nuclear warheads on the island before Moscow ordered all its missiles dismantled. Suppose further that he held onto that knowledge until he was on his deathbed, when he passed it along to his son. The younger man, Viktor Isakov, leaves Russia after the Soviet Union collapses and settles in the United States, where he plies his trade as an arms dealer. Once he's firmly established, he decides to use the secret his father passed on to him to make a big score and retire.

Isakov makes contact with a virulently anti-Castro band of Cuban exiles in Florida. They are willing to pay dearly to get their hands on a nuclear weapon. Immediately they begin plotting ways to recover one of the warheads and set it off on January 1, 1999, during the celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

Blissfully unaware of the sinister plot, an American college professor named McLemore arrives in Cuba. He is seeking respite from a stultifying academic existence by researching some of the more arcane historical aspects of the Cuban Missile Crisis. His expectations are low, since the era has been thoroughly researched by historians for more than a generation. But he needs time away from his classroom, so he accepts a modest grant and heads south.

"Before launching himself on this venture, McLemore had given little thought to Cuba as a place. He had seen the National Geographic pictures, picked up some brochures, recalled a mad week in St. Bart's after college. But he had no real sense of Cuba. Now, suddenly immersed, he was stunned by its careless beauty, the immediacy of life without a comfortable commercial fašade, its primitive and earthy context. It seemed to him a kind of Caribbean Brigadoon. And though a long way from the type of idealized paradise most of his countrymen sought, Cuba seemed to have a simple ease he thought he could adapt to without much training."

Cuba offers McLemore other attractions, too. Not the least of them is his "minder," a woman of stunning beauty named Trinidad Santiago, assigned by the Cuban government to escort him around the island. He suspects she really works for one of the Cuban security services. There's also the little discrepancy he unearths in the dusty files of a government ministry. They seem to indicate that in 1962, the Soviet Union shipped a few more nuclear warheads into Cuba than it later shipped out.

As the story unfolds, it becomes a race against time. The exiles are going to act on January 1 unless someone stops them. Only McLemore has the information needed to prevent a disaster. He gets sucked into the post-Cold War morass of Cuban-American relations.

"Sins of the Fathers" resonates with some of the more intriguing novels by Robert Ludlum. It thrusts an otherwise very ordinary man into an extraordinary set of circumstances over which he feels he has no control. McLemore must find within himself the resources to do what he knows must be done to stave off a catastrophe. He gets a lot of help -- not all of it welcome -- from the people he meets on both sides of the "Cuba problem."

The author is obviously well-versed in the ways of diplomacy and espionage. "John Blackthorn" is a nom de plume for a person described as "a world-renowned American political figure who has had considerable experience in global geopolitics and intelligence matters." Whatever his or her true identity, "Sins of the Fathers" is a first-rate yarn populated by interesting characters in an exotic locale, set against the backdrop of a conflict that continues to simmer and, occasionally, to boil over into the news headlines.

L.D. Meagher is a News Editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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