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A knot of many strands

THE MONKEY'S FIST, by William D. Pease

Viking, $23.95.

The Monkey's Fist is a story as convoluted and deceptive as the complex knot from which it takes its title, threads wrapped around and through one another until it is impossible to tell which leads where or even how many there are.

Eddie Nickles, a 25-year District of Columbia cop, only thinks he's retiring. Several days into his leisure, a mysterious man pays Nickles $10,000 to investigate a double homicide on behalf of the parents of one of the victims. But when he gets the information he was hired for, two Russian thugs turn up in his kitchen bent on killing him.

Nickles' hunt for the man who hired him leads through a labyrinth of international intrigue involving the new Russian crime mob, a supersecret U.S. intelligence agency and a brilliant investment apparatus that provides the agency with its operating capital.

There are so many characters with so many aliases that it requires supreme concentration early to keep up. The personalities are intricately drawn and fascinating, the details razor sharp. This story from former U.S. District Attorney William D. Pease, author of The Rage of Innocence, is a killer thriller, worth every moment spent with it.

THE TRIGGERMAN'S DANCE, by T. Jefferson Parker, Hyperion, $21.95.

Newspaperman John Menden was in love with a colleague, Rebecca Harris, but she is engaged to FBI agent Joshua Weinstein. When Menden sees Harris gunned down in the newspaper parking lot by a sniper who mistook her for a left-wing columnist, he quits his job and flees to a solitary drinking life in the desert.

Six months later, Weinstein recruits Menden to infiltrate the stronghold of Vann Holt, a legendary ex-FBI agent who lost his son in a shooting for which a Chicano boy was tried. The sniper's intended victim defended the boy in print, and Holt reviled her for it. He had the motive and means for murder.

Menden agrees in order to exact revenge for Harris, but once inside Holt's operation, events take a nasty turn. For reasons Menden can't begin to fathom, someone within Holt's organization begins to leak information to him that ties Holt to Harris' murder. Complicating the situation further, Menden falls in love with Holt's daughter, even though he knows the outcome of his mission will cost him the relationship.

The Triggerman's Dance, the fifth California novel from writer T. Jefferson Parker, is smooth in its prose, seamless in its plotting and dark in its tone. It doesn't end perfectly for anyone except the reader, who discovers there is little satisfaction in revenge, except when sliding through this revealing and literary account of someone else's efforts to find it.

SIMPLE SIMON, by Ryne Douglas Pearson, William Morrow, $24.

Simon Lynch is a 16-year-old savant, an autistic child with remarkable puzzle-solving abilities. When he solves the wrong puzzle, the ostensibly unbreakable code of the National Security Agency, nasty boys within the agency send an even nastier assassin to kill him. She is Keiko Kimura, a terrorist who gets off bathing in the blood of her victims.

Fortunately for Simon, the new husband of his doctor is Special Agent Art Jefferson of the FBI, who just happens to have been given the assignment of tracking down the killer who butchered a former colleague. Now, who do you think that might have been?

The story line is predictable, and it is more than a little burdensome to accept the notion that a top security code could become a game in a puzzle magazine. But author Ryne Douglas Pearson, a California writer and author of Capitol Punishment, keeps the action rolling in this thriller that reads something like Rain Man meets Tom Clancy.

Jean Heller's Thrillers column appears monthly.