Post-Wall thrillers
What do spooks do now the Cold War is over? For the GCHQ operatives in Mark Urban's novel The Linguist (Headline Feature, pounds 17.99), the answer is obvious. Old enmities die hard so you snoop on ... the French! The scientists at Britain's surveillance centre have developed a device that can tap into fibre-optic cables. With support from the Americans, they plan to tunnel under the streets of Paris and eavesdrop on the president's communications. The team is led by top codebreaker Ted Lofting, a man with a troubled home life and a busman's holiday of a hobby: strategic wargaming. Seconded to his team is Margaret Reynolds, a talented linguist. Their task of obtaining information about a crucial Middle East arms deal is compromised when Margaret initiates an e-mail liaison with a French official she is meant to bug.

As Newsnight's defence expert, Urban knows his technical stuff; his descriptions of interdepartmental feuding are utterly convincing, but the characterisations are paint-by-numbers stuff, the plot pedestrian and the ending, in which all must have prizes, is ludicrous and forced.

Someone else with the inside dope is Michael Shea, who swapped the life of a career diplomat for the less stressful one of writing novels about career diplomats. The Berlin Embassy (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99) is set in a city rediscovering its position as the fulcrum of power in the new Europe. Alex Murray is posted to the position of counsellor in the Embassy, replacing an official who left in mysterious circumstances. A crisis is facing the stuffy Ambassador and his curiously shifty staff; thousands of Russian refugees are gathering on the fortified border, starving victims of the new regime's mafia-capitalism.

Preying on their desperation is Vladimir, a nationalist demagogue. As his neo-fascist message finds favour in the Russian Army, a Kremlin coup seems imminent. Despite the occasional whiff of Economist-leader pomposity, this is a taut, plausible thriller with an intriguing scenario in which capitalism, searching for new bogeymen, stumbles on the perfect enemy: the world's poor and dispossessed.

Both Shea and Urban paint portraits of espionage that are technocratic and blandly non-judgmental. None of these charges can be levelled at Julian Rathbone. For decades, he has been crafting literate, witty thrillers which combine topicality with a strong moral sense. His latest, Brandenburg Concerto (Serpent's Tail, pounds 7.99), sees us back in Berlin, in the company of Renata Fechter, the feminist eco-cop heroine of Accidents Will Happen. Pausing only slightly to give birth, Renata is soon hot on the trail of four trainloads of ammunition missing in the forests between Germany and Russia. Also in pursuit of the trains, for more mercenary reasons, are: a Bosnian general; a cack-handed group of English gangsters; a militant Serbian gang; and a transvestite cabaret artiste.

Rathbone delights in breathing life into the most improbable characters. He compels the reader, through sheer bravura, to believe in their quirky existence, and orchestrates the plot with real artistry before winding the whole thing up into a shuddering, satisfying finale. By turns funny, shocking, stylish and downright odd, Rathbone's vision of an ideology- free Europe ruled by ruthless, buck-chasing syndicates is chillingly feasible.

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