The world of Colin Harrison's new novel, Afterburn, is a world of dark extremes. Unrelentingly corrupt, its characters oscillate between cynicism and melancholy. Their violent acts are dispassionate; their passionate couplings verge on violence. The tangled plot begins with the capture and torture of fighter pilot Charlie Ravich by the Viet Cong in 1972. Charlie withstands starvation, beatings, and incoherence, only to be riddled with friendly fire just prior to his rescue. But he survives, and the narrative leaps ahead to 1999, where Charlie has become a successful international businessman. On a trip to Hong Kong, he witnesses a death that makes him a very wealthy man. But wealth only assuages Charlie's physical and emotional pain. His wife seems to be slipping away to what may be Alzheimer's, his only son died years before. So, when Charlie learns that his daughter is unable to bear a child, he takes steps to assure his own genetic immortality by advertising for a woman to bear his child. At the same time, a mathematical whiz named Christina Welles is freed unexpectedly from prison, where she has been serving a sentence for trafficking stolen goods. Christina suspects that her early release has been orchestrated by Tony Verducci, the mobster she has betrayed. Sure that Tony wants to exact some form of revenge, Christina lays low in Manhattan, assuming the name of another woman. Her old boyfriend, Rick Bocca, is warned by the cops that Christina is out of prison and the target of Tony's vendetta. Still in love with her, and feeling guilty for her incarceration, he goes in search of her, not realizing that his hunt is endangering Christina as well as himself.

When Christina hooks up with Charlie Ravich in the bar of the Pierre, Charlie is fascinated by this clever, attractive woman. They become lovers, and Charlie, knowing nothing of her past, speculates that she might be the ideal woman to bear his child. But once his and Christina's worlds collide, Charlie quickly becomes the unwitting target of Tony's pitiless wrath. With ingenious plot turns reminiscent of Jim Thompson's The Grifters, the truth is slowly revealed about Christina's inventive deception of Tony. With its muscular prose and graphic depictions of a nefarious world, Afterburn is clearly not a book for faint-hearted readers. But for those who can steer through the raging sex and violence, Colin Harrison will reward them with a compelling story fueled by lots of surprises, including two kickers at the end. ¦ Robert Weibezahl is the co-author of A Taste of Murder (Dell).

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