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"Kingdom of Shadows" and "Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime" 

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The Case of the Missing Plot
In 1938, as Hitler's thumbscrews tighten on central Europe, all of Paris lives and dies by daily newspaper headlines. That there will be war is certain. The French blindly pray Hitler will be satisfied with Czechoslovakia, maybe Poland. For Nicholas Morath, former World War I cavalryman and now owner of a small public relations firm in Paris, it is business as usual. Or is it?

Morath spends most of Alan Hurst's "Kingdom of Shadows" (Random House, $24.95) working his ad campaigns and doing small "favors" for his mysterious Uncle Janos, a Hungarian expatriate who is willing to risk everything to help save his country from being eaten by the Third Reich.

Morath knows nothing, but he does what he is asked. He retrieves a man from Slovakia, risking rivers, treachery and gunfire only to have the man disappear as soon as they cross the French border. He sets up an apartment for his uncle, and soon after, a high-ranking SS officer is dead in the living room from apparent suicide.

As Hitler takes Prague, Poland is seen as having the only army in Europe that can withstand the Germans. Hungary is in real danger. Morath's missions to serve his elusive uncle get so dangerous it starts to feel like reckless behavior. When his mother steadfastly refuses to leave Hungary, it becomes strikingly clear to Morath, perhaps for the first time, how precarious his fate is.

Layer upon layer of mystery under the constant threat of war make this book such an exhilarating read that it was not until I sat down to review it that I realized it is essentially plotless. Four long chapters, which could have easily become separate novels, keep the reader guessing throughout, but the answers never materialize. For a spy novel this should be a rather large problem, but Hurst is so talented it ends up being a small quibble. There is every possibility Hurst's next book could be the greatest spy novel ever written. So we wait.

— Thom Jeter



Radio Days
John Dunning has used his expertise as an antiquarian book dealer and appraiser to give us several thrillers. In his recent novel, " Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime" (Scribner, $26), his concentration has shifted to his other passion, a reverence for old-time radio broadcasting. The period is 1942, when support for the war effort in Europe on the home front was at a unified, feverish pitch. Radio was the viable medium used to promote any energetic patriotic encouragement, and radio actors were inspired by noble ideals more than personal acclaim.

The hero is Jack Dulaney, a writer with a fertile imagination who has squandered opportunities because of an ungovernable temperament. During his stint in a California jail, he is approached by an old friend with an urgent request. Dulaney learns an old love interest, Holly Carnahan, may be in personal danger and that her father has vanished without a trace from his job as a technician at a wartime radio station in Regina Beach, N.J. Dulaney realizes his personal feelings for Holly have never lessened, and he readily resolves to assist her. During his journey to the East Coast, he is dogged by calamity and near-attempts on his life with no plausible reason. Once in New Jersey, Jack reinvents his identity and discovers a latent talent for writing impromptu radio scripts for WHAR, an independent station that produces patriotic skits and music. Reuniting with Holly, now a singer, the two become trapped in a vicious whirlpool of villainy that includes another radio actor's disappearance, a pro-German Nationalist group, and a series of peculiar station "accidents."

In this book, Dunning shatters any misconception that radio was just a mass of insipid music and crackpot commentators. The intricacies of program preparation from frenzied rehearsals to well-constructed melodramas will only heighten reader enthusiasm. The protagonist, Jack Dulaney, is a brooding throwback to the reluctant loner/amateur detective for whom consistent love remains elusive. The author expertly weaves into each section a prickly underlying tension where Jack and Holly must discern the difference between beneficial alliances and deadly repercussions. This novel is masterful in combining plot twists with a nostalgic revisitation to a time-honored craft.

— Bruce Simon



Critics' List
Slate online magazine's list comprises books some book critics are ashamed they have never read. Richard Bernstein of the New York Times confesses he has never read "Ulysses" from beginning to end. Anne Fadiman has never read "War and Peace." For the other confessions, go to www.slate.msn.com/culturebox/entries/o1-03-06 101969.asp

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