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Conspiracy by Allan Topol (Onyx, 386 pages, $7.50) The election approaches: A liberal Democrat of Irish extraction is challenging the incumbent conservative Republican. Meanwhile, a new generation of Japanese politicos tries to shrug off the country’s half-century-old mantle of pacifism. It may sound like the news in the morning paper, but it’s the backdrop for Allan Topol’s latest paranoia-inducing thriller. Of course, no one expects presidential candidate John Kerry to be found dead in his bathtub, as is the case with Sen. Charles Boyd in the opening pages of Conspiracy. And in real elections, unlike the lurid sequences within the pages of a Topol novel, the appearance of a prostitute in a G-string doesn’t usually portend an imminent assassination. Conspiracy is a good read, if not quite the warp-speed page-turner that was Topol’s last novel, Dark Ambition. What Conspiracy lacks in pacing, however, it makes up for in the sophistication of its plot layers. Topol, a partner at D.C.’s Covington & Burling, knows his stuff. He also knows Washington. The confidence with which he portrays the habits of this company town and then tweaks them, rendering the depravity and hubris of his characters utterly believable, may result in a tendency for you to glance nervously over your shoulder while walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. In Topol’s hands, the politicians at the top are the evildoers. The workhorse lawyers, the cogs in Washington’s political machine, are the saviors. It’s a formula that will go over well inside the Beltway. At the center of Conspiracy is C.J. Cady, the handsome and brilliant assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia. He’s the kind of young lawyer managing partners at top firms drool over, but Cady is immune to the private sector’s golden temptations. His heart belongs to the public weal, and his fat trust fund lets him tool around in a Jaguar XJ8 despite his G-12 paycheck. A mysterious package left on Cady’s desk prompts this white-hatted champion of justice and democracy to launch an investigation into Sen. Boyd’s real estate dealings and campaign fund raising. He even convenes a grand jury. To handle this public-relations disaster, Boyd turns to his gung-ho and brainy campaign manager, Taylor Ferrari. Don’t be fooled by the porn-star name. Ferrari juggles Boyd’s campaign and her corporate law practice with aplomb — even when the grand jury investigation utterly derails Boyd’s momentum. But when Boyd’s body goes cold in an Eastern Shore bathtub after an apparent suicide, Ferrari crumples. Very quickly, she suspects Boyd has met with foul play. She barely has time to take a breath before danger rushes her way, too, pushing her into a vortex of deadly election year desperation and, of course, into Cady’s arms. It gives nothing away to reveal that Cady and Ferrari are a latter day Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn à la “Adam’s Rib.” Ferrari’s intellect and passion crash into Cady’s cowboy calm, and sparks fly. Unlike the 1949 film, however, Conspiracy keeps the lights on during the steamy and hot-fudge-saucy love scenes. And in Conspiracy, prosecutor and defense lawyer team up to unravel a plot that has left three men dead and a two-faced attorney general quaking on his knees, and threatens to rapidly and completely redistribute the balance of global power. Along the way, we meet the sage but profoundly ill Gerhard Hall, chief justice of the United States; Yahiro Sato, the militarist who will stop at nothing to lead Japan into a new dawn of military might; Terasawa, an oversized Yakuza thug who killed his own father; a mysterious American who aches to avenge the execution of his parents by Maoists in 1949 Shanghai; and a bevy of friendly FBI agents. With this third novel, Topol breaks little new ground for himself. He’s great at weaving nuggets from current events into a satisfying narrative. As with Dark Ambition and Spy Dance, the action scenes and telling details linger long after you have finished the book and have forgotten exactly how that plot line curved. The violent climax of the book is so vivid you may find yourself averting your eyes from the page. His dialogue is smart. And he paints his settings with a quick, deft brush. Topol delivers more cold chills than cheap thrills. And so smart and sophisticated is Topol about Washington and its machinations and interests in the Far East that it’s easy to overlook occasional pulp-fiction corniness. The bruiser who handles the White House’s “special projects” is predictably named Pug. Cady tells a cop that he picked up a “broad in Georgetown. A real looker.” (A what? When did the time machine shoot us back 50 years?) But Conspiracy‘s characters, political background, and even the arc of its plot have a little too much in common with Topol’s earlier novels. They were great fun to read, and so is this one. For his next literary endeavor, Topol might want to mix it up a little. Then again, maybe he won’t. That certain sameness has spelled success and riches for generations of mystery writers. Siobhan Roth is a former reporter for Legal Times. She recently returned from Turkey, where she was on a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism.

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