BOOK REVIEW / Dial the Mission for murder: 'Overthrown by strangers' - Ronan Bennett: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99

Ronan Bennett's first novel The Second Prison was set in Belfast and London, a crisp, compulsive thriller with chilling characters, shootings and a mad British policeman called Tempest. It is a world that the Belfast-born Bennett knows well.

The book won the Irish Times Aer Lingus First Fiction Award and one critic even likened 'the pace of this complex and successful moral tale' with Greene and Le Carre, a comparison that must have delighted this intelligent and ambitious writer.

Bennett's second novel Overthrown by Strangers is a different kind of political thriller. Again, it begins in Belfast, where Sean Quinn, IRA, is on the run, naked. A soldier, lifting his gun to shoot, chuckles, loses concentration, loses his man. Later, (fully- dressed) Quinn is shot in the face by his best friend Denis, who is after Quinn's wife. Surviving - just - Quinn flies to America where his luck gives out altogether; eventually he is shot dead in a field in Guatemala by an agent acting for the sinister New Era Mission of Christ. Poor, easy-

going Quinn. In spite of his rackety life, you feel he doesn't quite deserve this.

Bennett has assembled an impressive cast of characters ranging from prisoners, terrorists and born-again Christians, but he is primarily concerned with the private struggles of three people: Quinn, sick, adrift, 'prowling the edges of other people's lives'; Agustin, an illegal immigrant from Peru scarred both by his childhood and his experiences in prison there; and Judy, who believes the Mission to be involved with the disappearance of her sister in Guatamala. When Agustin murders missionary leader Andrew Jank, the ill-assorted trio flee to Mexico knowing the Mission will close in on them.

The villains of the book are the hypocritical missionaries, determined to bring not just the Word to the Indian communities in Latin America, but the American version of the Word - and by whatever means are necessary.

Ronan Bennett's writing is coloured by the total of three and a half years he has spent in prison, in Long Kesh and as a high-security prisoner in Brixton, held with others on conspirary to cause explosions. Conducting his own defence at the Old Bailey, he was acquitted.

Yet the author reserves little compassion for his characters. None is destined to be happy - or to live. Much of the intricate plot is told in a series of flashbacks which require concentration. And the cruelty, squalor, degradation, indifference to life and hopelessness of Latin America wore this reader down in the end.