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Surviving dangerous encounters

by Mark Schreiber

In “The Lion’s Game” (2000) and “The Lion” (2010), Nelson DeMille’s character NYPD Detective John Corey battles and defeats Asad Khalil, a brilliant Libyan terrorist who infiltrates the U.S. to extract revenge for the deaths of family members killed in a U.S. air raid on Tripoli.

The Panther, by Nelson DeMille. Grand Central Publishing, 2012, 629 pp., $27.99 (hardcover) Performance Anomalies, by Victor Robert Lee. Perimeter Six, 2012, 278 pp., $24.99 (hardcover)

Now it’s three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Corey, assigned to a federal antiterrorist task force, is dispatched with his FBI agent wife, Kate Mayfield, to Yemen to hunt for another big cat. This one, Bulus ibn al-Darwish, al Numair — aka The Panther — is the bloodthirsty jihadist who played a key role in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000.

In addition to having to cope with Yemen’s corrupt military and various local troublemakers, Corey must also be on guard against the CIA, which has borne a grudge against him ever since an earlier work, “Night Fall” (2004), in which he and Kate investigated the unexplained crash of a TWA Flight 800 off New York’s Long Island in 1996.

In that book, Corey locked horns with a CIA agent named Ted Nash, who Kate wound up shooting dead in a subsequent thriller. Nash’s fellow spooks have long memories and may even be more devious and dangerous than Middle Eastern terrorists. As they see it, if Corey manages to track down and kill the Panther, fine; but the main priority seems to be whacking Corey and then blaming his death on al-Qaida. So Corey faces the classic predicament of betrayal by his own compatriots.

DeMille is a master of portraying tough, wisecracking, Irish-American cops, so in addition to Corey, army CID investigator Paul Brenner, who starred in several other works (“The General’s Daughter,” “Up Country”), makes a cameo appearance in Yemen. Being hell-raising Hibernians who revel in bucking the establishment, be it military or civilian, Brenner and Corey hit it off fine.

DeMille served as an infantry officer in the war in Vietnam, and he offers some insights profound enough to make them required reading at U.S. military academies. Like this: “It was obvious that no one here had a very high regard for the host country or its citizens. I could certainly see why this was so — but American arrogance led to over-confidence, and that led to mistakes.”

While some might object to the book’s appeal to America-centric tastes, if you want to read a well-spun thriller set in Yemen, “The Panther” fills the bill.

When a book’s dust jacket is embellished with a red dragon, it’s pretty likely to be set in Asia, even when it sports a cryptic title like “Performance Anomalies.”

Actually the person writing under the pseudonym of Victor Robert Lee seems driven to avoid just about every cliché found in Asian thrillers up to now, and the result is a thoroughly original work of fiction.

The protagonist, a young Brazilian who goes by the name Cono, seems to have been inspired by Neo, the character portrayed by Keanu Reeves in the science-fiction thriller “The Matrix.” Armed with a genetic mutation that gives him a hyper-fast neurological system, Cono was studied by scientists at California research labs until he grew bored at being an experimental guinea pig and discovered his superior mental gifts could be harnessed to earn himself great wealth.

As the narrative begins, the woman known as Xiao Li (xiao, meaning “small,” is typically a diminutive or term of endearment Chinese women place before their surname) is in big trouble after being abducted by some very nasty people. Cono’s human weaknesses being a strong sense of personal loyalty and a quixotic attitude toward the fair sex, he heads for Kazakhstan to free Xiao Li from her captors.

The capital Almaty, with its volatile mixture of ethnic, religious and political rivalries, is depicted like East Berlin, Trieste and Casablanca rolled into one. Neighboring China has designs on Kazakhstan’s oil and uranium resources, and has dispatched the brutal and ruthless Zhen Luping to eliminate anyone who gets in the way.

A superhuman mercenary with a conscience, Cono may feel pain and bleed, but his “performance anomalies” ensure survival from both Kazakh perfidy and Chinese villainy. Since he’s strictly freelance and bears no allegiance to anyone or anything except his friends, he comes across as something of a super-nihilist.

This in turn raises the question: If you’ve got the abilities to support an extravagant lifestyle on the French Riviera, why go slumming in Kazakhstan, with all the dangers it entails?

Well, I suppose we lesser mortals can hardly be expected to comprehend the motives of characters like Cono. I will concede that author Lee sure knows how to saddle his protagonist with some daunting predicaments.

Mark Schreiber is a fanatical collector and reader of mystery and thriller fiction set in Asia.