by Edward Jay Epstein
Putnam’s, 316 pp., $9.95
The Carlos Contract: A Novel of International Terrorism
by David Atlee Phillips
Macmillan, 252 pp., $8.95
Death of a Politician
by Richard Condon
Richard Marek, 294 pp., $9.95
Smoke: Another Jimmy Carter Adventure
by Alexander Cockburn, by James Ridgeway
Times Books, 149 pp., $7.95
It’s hard not to read reports of public crises and disasters the way we read novels of conspiracy and intrigue. Political upheavals, assassinations and mass atrocity, material shortages and monetary nightmares all invite a paranoid interpretation—somewhere there must be people who are doing this to us on purpose. History unquestionably is conspiratorially manipulated from time to time, but even if it weren’t, we would want to think so, hoping against hope that a secularized world can still, however dreadfully, make sense. If the CIA did not exist, it would probably be necessary to invent it, along with International Communism, Zionism, the Mafia, the PLO, the John Birch Society, OPEC, and bankers.
Although the CIA figures prominently in all the books I’m here concerned with, the governing mood of such fiction is of course much older than that beleaguered Agency. The mood goes back at least as far as the thrillers I read in childhood, stories by John Buchan, Edgar Wallace, Sax Rohmer, and E. Phillips Oppenheim in which Scotland Yard or some heroic agent saved Western civilization from nefarious cabals of gangsters, financiers, bolsheviks, or Chinamen. But these stories took place in never-never land; if a figure like Dr. Fu Manchu vaguely pandered to Occidental anxieties about the Boxers or Sun Yat-sen, opium, immigration, and the Yellow Peril generally, no one quite cared to admit it. In the last ten or fifteen years, however, such books have become more specific. Real public figures appear, often in scandalous situations, under their own or very similar names, historical events and fictitious ones mix and blur together, the bad guys and the good guys are hard to tell apart.
Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, Ishmael Reed, and—preeminently—Thomas Pynchon, for example, can make use of this mood and its methods in serious fiction. But it’s not good books but bad ones that best reveal the nature of a genre, and Edward Jay Epstein’s Cartel is bad enough to be instructive. The time is 1953, Mohammed Mossadeq has nationalized the Iranian oil fields, and the international petroleum companies and the British and American governments are arranging his downfall at the hands of the CIA. Cartel, that is to say, is a romance founded very firmly in modern history.
Since modern history strikingly lacks heroes, however, Epstein has to invent one: Jacob Jasmine, tall, handsome, sexy, and brilliant young assistant professor of government at Harvard, an expert in the theory of coups d’état who’s gullible enough to plan the overthrow and murder of Mossadeq while thinking he’s just designing a new “game of nations” exercise. Since modern history doesn’t offer many heroines either, Epstein supplies two incredible ones—a brainy young Oxford-trained logician who turns up in Jasmine’s class, and her sister, at twenty-two “Britain’s leading authority on pre-Raphaelite art.” She has caught the fancy of the oil consortium’s chief tactician and heavy, who keeps trying to press original Rossettis upon …