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Terror thriller follows rules for suspense

Richard Flanagan's provocative thriller, "The Unknown Terrorist," will be regarded as one of the odder additions to the post- 9/1 1 literature engaging the trauma of terrorism and the paranoid, repressive response of politicians, mass media and the state.

Set in Sydney, Australia, Flanagan's novel features an exotic dancer who answers to the moniker "the Doll," performs under the stage names of Krystal and the Black Widow, and whose real name, belatedly revealed in the 13th chapter, is Gina Davies.

Perhaps it's enough for us to know about Flanagan's not-very-savvy, film-industry stock character of the pole dancer with a heart of gold "in the mold of Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman" that she has a naturally curvaceous figure and thinks of little more than purchasing designer apparel, ingesting boutique prescription drugs and adding to her stash of $100 bills to acquire a stylish apartment.

As such, "the Doll" is an exceptionally unlikely suspect for involvement in a cell of Islamic fundamentalists who have planted backpack bombs in the Homebush Olympic stadium. It's the injustice of her indictment by a vain television newsman and politicians eager to gain the loyalty of a fearful populace on which the plot of "The Unknown Terrorist" turns.

And the pages turn very quickly in a novel that uses the plot conventions of the thriller. The first rule is to introduce no character who does not act to advance the storyline. The Doll has a gal pal named Wilder who has broken off a relationship with a married police detective-sergeant "and sharpshooter" named Nick "Athens" Loukakis who will figure prominently in the denouement of the Doll's tragedy.

The Doll and Wilder enjoy a sun-soaked day at the beach, where Wilder's son is rescued from a rip current by a darkly tanned (or is he just dark?) "cutie" whose path will cross the Doll's again.

The second rule of the thriller is to ignore the gross improbability of the coincidences by which characters and their storylines intersect. Such truly remarkable coincidences that bring a handful of characters together repeatedly (in a city such as Sydney, which boasts a population of 4.3 million people) serve to efficiently advance the plot and assure no slackening of the narrative suspense. These are very good rules for writing "taut" thrillers, and they keep the reader fully absorbed in the suspenseful story on long international flights in coach class.

Obviously, Flanagan envisions "The Unknown Terrorist" as the basis for a screenplay that's destined to be shown to nonreading passengers on those very same airline flights. He's already directed a feature film based on his second novel, "The Sound of One Hand Clapping."

Unfortunately, the sorts of extraordinary happenstance that propel fictional narratives and that even the dullest reader can piece together are not so prominent in the world inhabited by both international terrorists and airline travelers on vacation. If it were, bin Laden and his associates would long ago have been tracked to their lair and world crises averted. What entertains us as readers in Flanagan's "The Unknown Terrorist" ultimately provides poor insight into the nature of terrorism or conspiratorial plots in the world as it is.

The Doll has the dubious luck to hook up with the slender, dark bodysurfer at a gay pride parade (don't even ask) and they spend a cocaine-and Zoloft-fueled night together in the torpid Australian heat. He turns out to be Tariq al-Hakim, a computer programmer by profession and an occasional drug mule running packets from Pakistan and Kuala Lumpur.

Other than his Arabic surname and the suggestion that al-Qaida may be financing its operations by drug trafficking, Tariq's passions for raster bitmapping, meringue dancing, a good line of blow and limber pole dancers make him otherwise an unlikely Islamic fundamentalist terrorist. But with a bomb scare at the stadium, the authorities descend on his apartment, only minutes too late to apprehend the couple.

They are, however, captured by an Orwellian aerial surveillance camera, and the Doll's digitally enhanced image is quickly broadcast nationwide. And so, it's the Doll on the run.

We're never told who is responsible for the Olympic stadium bombs or why Tariq has become the subject of the manhunt. Because neither Tariq nor the Doll are terrorists, we learn nothing about the psychology of terrorism from their characterization, as we might from, for example, John Updike's rendering of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy in his novel "Terrorist."

The target of Flanagan's critique, then, is not the mind of the terrorist but the mass hysteria that terrorism has provoked. The Doll exclaims to her lone remaining friend, Wilder, "People like fear. We all want to be frightened and we all want somebody to tell us how to live and who to f--- and why we should do this and think that. And that's the Devil's job. That's why I'm important to them, Wilder, because if you can make up a terrorist you've given people the Devil."

The parallels between Homeland Security and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and between the governments of President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, are instructional. We're told that "ASIO has the power to detain without charge if it has reason to believe that you are likely to commit an offence, or if we think you have information about terrorist activity."

Flanagan has dedicated the novel to David Hicks, an Australian citizen accused of training with al-Qaida and held for five years at Guantanamo Bay without being found guilty of a crime.

Unlike the Harrison Ford vehicle "The Fugitive," in which a husband wrongly accused of murdering his wife is able to exonerate himself despite the dogged pursuit of detectives, Flanagan's doomed Doll serves as a tragic lesson in how individual rights are severely compromised by the triad of sensationalist, headline-bleating news media, grandstanding politicians and a police state empowered to detain suspects without charge or legal representation in the interests of public safety. Ineffectually, as it turns out, because the true terrorist in the novel remains unknown.

Joseph Conte is a professor of English at the State University at Buffalo.

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The Unknown Terrorist

By Richard Flanagan

Grove Press, 325 pages; $24

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