Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Terrorist Next Door

THREAT is, quite simply, one of the most clever and exciting thrillers I've ever read. There is a great movie to be made in there somewhere, something along the lines of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. In fact, THREAT was optioned in the 1980s, but no film was made, and again in 2009 by Carolina Films for a movie rumored to star Charlie Sheen and be directed by Nick Cassavetes. Well, I guess that's out.

THREAT was published in 1981, the final book by Richard Jessup, whose best-known work is THE CINCINNATI KID, which was filmed starring Steve McQueen in 1966. He also wrote westerns, under his own name and that of Richard Telfair, and one of those, CHUKA, was filmed starring Rod Taylor.

I hate to say too much about THREAT, because the less you know about the story, the richer the experience of reading it will be. It centers around two men, Chris Murdoch, who's in charge of a brand new 100-story New York City skyscraper called The St. Cyr Tower (sincere?), and a Vietnam War vet calling himself Tonio Vega, who needs $4 million to get his twin brother out of a Viet Cong prisoner-of-war camp.

Tonio's scheme to earn $4 million is ingenious and involves extorting the wealthy owner of the St. Cyr Tower, Spain. Jessup's convoluted plot requires some patience. He drops clues early on that don't appear to mean anything, but they all eventually pay off by the end. By the time Jessup has finished dotting his i's and crossing his t's, you'll be tempted to turn back a hundred pages or so to see whether or not he has played fair with the reader (hint: he has).

THREAT is more than just a witty plot, however. Jessup's characterizations of Vega and Murdoch are on the money--smart, principled men with a healthy respect for each other, even though they never meet until the last page. What may surprise you is your admiration for Tonio, who is a murderer, but is also brilliant and committed to a moral cause it's easy to identify with.

I can't remember where I found my used paperback copy of THREAT, but it's easily worth the couple of dollars I must have paid for it. I urge you to seek it out; Amazon has used copies available for a penny (plus shipping). It's 280 pages and doesn't wear out its welcome for even one of them.

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