Male bonding on the info-tech exchange

Harry Pearson knows a 130+ grain copper clad slug from a Colt .38 when he sees one

Henry James once said that, from no more than an overheard snatch of conversation between two soldiers, a writer should be able to produce a novel about the army. It is a safe bet that Henry James would not cut it in the world of modern thriller writing. The core thriller audience is male, so hard facts along with hard muscle are essential components. The idea that they are involving themselves in a world someone has simply made up is abhorrent to many men: the stuff of fiction is deception and no man likes to think of himself as easily fooled. As a consequence the considerable imagination which goes into creating the modern thriller comes concealed beneath a camoulflage net of information.

While many early thriller writers such as Erskine Childers and William Le Queux worked for the secret service, the turning point in the history of the genre surely came with the arrival of Frederick Forsyth, the first black belt in the martial art of research. Post-Day of the Jackal authentic inside knowledge - or at least the appearance of it - became integral to success. As a result, establishing early credibility is the key for the modern thriller writer. Jacket blurb and acknowledgements are front- line weaponry in the battle for the heart and mind of the reader.

As a former BBC defence correspondent, Mark Urban clearly has a march on his rivals here. As the jacket points out (twice), his journalistic work has given him an "unique insight" into the world of espionage. It has also given him an unique grasp of acronyms. Of the chief protagonists in The Illegal (Headline, pounds 16.99) one, Denton, works for K2 section of K Branch at GWS a couple of floors down from the DG and the DDG (A), while the other, Johnson, is a DS in the CID who doesn't have much time for SO19 or the ACPO, though he does nurse a sneaky fondness for UB-40. It would be tempting to dismiss this as a load of BS, if only for a cheap laugh, but a B+ would be nearer the mark. The plot of The Illegal revolves around the past coming back and haunting people and Urban steers his characters through it with a deal of panache and a good eye for the contrast between the laddish world of the police and the starchy yet more lethal one of the Intelligence Service.

Like Mark Urban, Stephen Hunter, American author of Black Light (Century, pounds 15.99), is a journalist. Unfortunately for him he is a film critic. This does not give him an unique insight into anything much except, presumably, the going rate for a Wenger's hot-dog. Hunter uses his acknowledgements to give his fiction a factual buttress and a skilful job he makes of it too, cunningly luring the reader into an ambush that leaves him unsure whether what he is about to read is a novel or a 1990s version of In Cold Blood.

Hunter has done research, too - most of it on guns. But where Urban has initials, Hunter has figures. His hero, ex-Marine Corps sniper Bob Lee Swagger, has a bad hip caused by "a 148-grain 7.62 x 54 full-metal-jacketed bullet launched at over 2,600 feet per second." Bob's father, Earl, an Arkansas cop, was killed when Bob was a boy by a couple of 130+ grain copper clad slugs from a Colt.38 Super Government Model (travelling speed unknown, but quicker than a 2CV heading down a 1-in-3 is my guess) and - hey, wait a minute, isn't that a .3115 bevelled entry wound in Pa's sternum? And what's that hovering over in the corner of the stableyard? Well, damn if it ain't the past coming on all spooky again.

There are a few false notes in Black Light, some large chunks of information about silencers and night-sights drop into the dialogue with hollow thuds, and Swagger's daughter Nicki is so unbearably cute that anyone not blessed with the iron self-restraint of a trained man-hunter would surely have brained her with a lug-wrench long before her fourth birthday, but the action scenes are good enough to blast through such obstacles and leave you sitting up way past lights-out trying to figure who killed Earl Swagger and why.

Bostonian crime writer Robert B. Parker long ago reached that enviable moment in a writer's life when the size of his name on the dust jacket swells to ten times that of the title. With a string of best-sellers to his name he hardly needs to establish his bona fides. Like the old pro he is, though, he keeps working at it, appearing in his author photo wearing shades, leather jacket and baseball cap and accompanied by a large German dog. Parker is usually described as working within the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. His private eye, Spenser, is full of wisecracks and funny, sour observations on his fellow citizens and there is something oddly old-fashioned about the world he inhabits. In the end reading Chance (Viking, pounds 16) is rather like listening to a Dixieland Jazz Band: it's good fun, but every so often you get the uneasy feeling that elsewhere life is moving on.

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