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A Thriller That Taps Into the Violent Pulse of Terrorism

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The odd title of Mark Burnell’s debut thriller refers to the human heart and lungs. A fellow trainee at a commando school in Scotland tells Stephanie Patrick: “Your heart is the drums, your breathing is the bass. . . . You can’t panic when your breathing’s under control and you’ve got your pulse in check. It’s not physically possible. . . . Keep the rhythm section tight and the rest of the song plays itself.”

It’s the old song of violence, played by a human being who has willed herself into a machine. Stephanie remembers these words as she shoots a treacherous arms dealer in Brazil and prepares to knife a Jewish promoter of West Bank settlements at his home in New York City.

Both killings are merely means to an end. Her bosses in an off-the-books British intelligence agency want Stephanie to establish her terrorist credentials in order to get close to their real quarry, Khalil, an Islamic mastermind resembling Osama bin Laden.

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Only when Khalil is neutralized will Stephanie be allowed to track down her real quarry, the man who planted a bomb on a transatlantic flight, killing 388 people, including her parents and siblings.

At first, Stephanie, devastated by their deaths, changes her name to Lisa and sinks into a life of drugs and prostitution in London. Abused by customers and a psychopathic pimp, she is losing her health and having to lower her price when a freelance journalist, Keith Proctor, interviews her about the crash.

It wasn’t an accident, he tells her. It was terrorism. The bomber, in fact, is in London, studying aeronautical engineering--no doubt to prepare for future strikes. But for some reason, the British and U.S. governments have left him alone and covered up the evidence of his crime.

Then Proctor is murdered. Hiding the information she has copied from his computer, Stephanie/Lisa gets hold of a pistol, escapes from the pimp and stalks the bomber, Reza Mohammed. She is about to pull the trigger when the British agents who have been watching Mohammed grab her.

She is drugged, imprisoned and finally presented with a Faustian choice: She can leave Mohammed alone--he’s a small fry--and keep quiet, or she can join the agency in its campaign against Khalil.

“The end of the Cold War created an illusion of safety,” a higher-up called Alexander tells her. “Secret services became more answerable to politicians. . . . The era of wholesome . . . transparency gave birth to us"--services even more secret. “We exist in the ether, which is the only safe place to be. . . . Much of what we do is distasteful but somebody has to work in the sewers.”

So Stephanie goes to commando school and passes, to Alexander’s surprise. She takes on two false identities: mercenary German terrorist Petra Reuter and Swiss chemical company employee Marina Gaudenzi. As Marina, she attracts a lover, an apparently ordinary chap.

As Petra, she kills--and when, in the tangle of selves, the original Stephanie protests, Alexander threatens to kill her remaining relatives if she quits.

We’re on familiar ground here--the amoral territory in which those who would destroy the Western world and those who claim to be saving it are much the same. But it’s new to Burnell.

Though he abides by most of the conventions of the thriller--the ham-fisted prose, the technical detail, the exotic locales (he grew up in Brazil) rendered down to every street name--"The Rhythm Section” is most interesting for its flaws. Burnell spends more time than the plot requires on Stephanie’s life as a prostitute, her crises of identity, her recurring qualms.

He’s guilty, now and then, of that most uncool of feelings: indignation. It becomes him.


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