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AN INTERNAL TUG OF WAR

THIS YEAR may not have produced a more suspenseful thriller than Brian Moore's "Lies of Silence."

It's difficult to imagine a more powerful assault on readers' nerves than the one mounted by this consummately crafted novel about the moral dilemmas endemic to that sectarian and political killing field known as Northern Ireland.

Moore, who was born in the city, uses Belfast as his bloody backdrop, and a young hotel manager named Michael Dillon as his principal. When Irish Republican Army terrorists bomb the hotel, Dillon alone knows he can identify one of them. But should he?

His internal tug of war -- to tell or not to tell -- is the wrenching stuff of Moore's extraordinarily gripping story. If Dillon, to protect himself, his estranged wife and his lover, bows to IRA threats by refusing to identify the thug to authorities, he's adding to the book title's "lies of silence" that perpetuate the Ulster bloodletting. But if he stands up to the IRA by pointing out the terrorist he saw, he's risking the killers' deadly wrath and sacrificing the new life and career he's about to embark on in London.

For the vacillating Dillon, the predicament is agonizing. For author Moore, it's the stuff of powerful drama.

Moore, now living in California, has written a top-tension entry -- and done it without smoke or mirrors, without car chases or shootouts. He has done it with lean, relentless and understated narrative, superlative characterizations, visceral wallop, and a chillingly disturbing sense of what happens when decent human beings get in the way of the juggernaut of mindless zealotry.

Lies of Silence. By Brian Moore. Doubleday. 197 pages, $18.95