(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The end of the Cold War was good news to almost everyone except writers of thrillers featuring international intrigue. The Nazis had made excellent villains during the 1930’s and 1940’s and were succeeded during the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s by the less style- conscious but equally sinister Soviet communists, with their Iron Curtain, KGB, Gulag Archipelago, and all the other apparatus of repression. The best thriller writer of all time, John le Carré, was evidently nonplussed by the thaw in the relations between the East and the West. The Little Drummer Girl(1983), involving Israel, and The Russia House (1989), involving a decathetized Soviet Union, were disappointments in comparison to le Carré’s great Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) andSmiley’s People (1980), both haunted by the Lenin- like figure of Karla, chain-smoking American cigarettes in some uncharted Siberian forest and plotting the overthrow of the West.

Still—and fortunately for the thriller writers—the world is not yet a bed of roses, and probably never will be. There are still smoldering fires in the Middle East, Japan is beginning to look a little sinister again, and one never knows what those Chinese might be up to. Then too there is the whole of Latin America, a great question mark on the globe, just beginning to emerge as an area to be reckoned with on the international scene in terms of wealth, culture, and sheer numbers of discontented people. In Wet Work, author Christopher Buckley has carved out the prototype of a thriller subgenre that will probably inspire many imitations in years to come. The villains in this case are the drug dealers of South America and the horde of intermediaries who run the nefarious traffic between the growers and manufacturers in the Southern Hemisphere and their affluent, insatiable, self-destructive Yankee consumers in the North.

Wet Work (the term is supposedly derived from espionage jargon and means “killing people in the line of duty”) follows the pattern of Brian Garfield’s novel Death Wish (1972), familiar to many via the 1974 film adaptation of the same title starring Charles Bronson. The difference is that the protagonist of Wet Work has far greater financial resources than the hero of Death Wish. Charley Becker, who made his first millions as a defense contractor and now controls an international conglomerate, is one of the world’s richest men. His only love in life is his beautiful, spoiled granddaughter Natasha, who aspires to be a New York stage actress. When she dies in her Manhattan apartment from an overdose of cocaine, Charley is so angered by the senseless waste of beauty, youth, and talent that he decides to exact revenge upon the whole drug-dealing establishment. With the assistance of his loyal bodyguard, former New York City detective Felix Velez, he begins tracking the cocaine to its source.

Becker and Velez start by grilling the young theatrical producer who gave Natasha the cocaine to provide her with real- life experience for her role as a junkie in his Off-Broadway play. The producer names as his source a street pusher, who in turn informs on a bigger pusher, and so on up the hierarchy. Becker kills his informants with the same cynical pleasure that Charles Bronson exhibited in Death Wish and its gory sequels. The trail leads Becker and Velez to beautiful, corrupt Miami, then out into the Caribbean, and finally up the Amazon River to Peru, where a powerful and fabulously wealthy drug exporter, “El Niño,” has an enormous facility for growing coca leaves and processing them into cocaine. This handsome young master villain rules his jungle kingdom with an iron hand and keeps a savage Amazon Indian girl as his mistress, yet he displays the manners of a gentleman and is a connoisseur of fine European art.

The murders committed by Becker and his henchmen in New York and Miami arouse the suspicions of Frank Diatri, an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He begins to follow Becker’s bloody trail and inadvertently alerts...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)