THE MONKEY'S FIST by William D. Pease (Viking: $23.95, 358 pp.). It's an old law school joke: If the government took economics seriously, it would stop paying farmers not to grow crops and start paying lawyers not to practice law. Well, the joke's no longer a joke--although it's editors and filmmakers, not bureaucrats, who are encouraging lawyers to write books instead of briefs. Former assistant U.S. Atty. William D. Pease is also the author of 1990's "Playing the Dozens," but the publisher hopes to take him to another level with "The Monkey's Fist"--and with good reason, for this is quintessential beach reading.

The thriller is almost generic in concept--retired D.C. police Det. Eddie Nickles believes he has taken on a straightforward free-lance investigation, only to be caught in a mare's nest of international intrigue--but Pease keeps it moving along with a twisty plot full of arrogant bureaucrats, double-dealing spies, epicurean Russians, honorable street thugs, loyal partners and even a sex-crazy, naively romantic accountant.

Dialogue isn't Pease's strong suit--although well-written, the novel is much too talky--but he's created a congenial romp culminating with a bang-up close. Nickles, first seen in "Playing the Dozens," is a very likable protagonist and will doubtless return for further adventures.

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