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Not a Very Merry Christmas; Welcome to a New Hero; Ludlum's Last 

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Not a Very Merry Christmas

There are no lawyers at all in John Grisham's newest novel. Nor are there judges, trials or courtrooms, as he proudly states in a letter to loyal readers on his Web site. "There are, however, Frosties, and a few laughs," Grisham writes.

Snowmen abound, but laughs are rarely found in "Skipping Christmas" (Doubleday, $19.95), the tale of a middle-aged couple who decide to abandon the extravagant frenzy of the holidays and save their money for a Caribbean cruise.

Sure, an escape is the secret fantasy of everyone waiting in mile-long mall lines to buy last-minute gifts. But Grisham's glib comments on Christmas culture never make the leap from whining to true satire. The office party: "Getting plastered was accepted behavior." Gifts of fruitcake: "passed around so much the packages were worn." Going to the movies: "another dull two hours of overpaid clowns giggling their way through a subliterate plot." What novel observations!

The reader is supposed to empathize with the main characters, Nora and Luther Krank, as they try desperately to stick with their resolve throughout pages of exaggerated disapproval from their neighbors and friends. But the Kranks slide from irritating to contemptible as the novel drags on. For example, at one point it's revealed that their biggest worry about their daughter's boyfriend, a Peruvian, is the color of his skin.

Eventually, it's revealed that "He wasn't dark at all! At least two shades lighter than Luther himself." Believe it or not, this is part of the happy ending. "Skipping Christmas" begs to be skipped. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Welcome to a New Hero

In his debut novel, "Secret Sanction" (Warner Books, $14.95), Brian Haig has created a new military mystery-thriller character so compelling, so tough and so downright funny that fans are sure to clamor for more.

Major Sean Drummond is the central character in "Secret Sanction." He's a former combat officer who served in a unit so "black" — civilians would call it "profoundly secret" — that he never names it. Then he went to law school on the Army's dime and switched to JAG service, but in a branch that specializes in "black" cases.

Drummond isn't sure why he was picked to fly to Bosnia to investigate an apparent massacre involving Green Berets and the KLA detachment they were "advising" behind enemy lines. But he does sense that nobody is telling him the truth and that the Army brass is more interested in preserving its secret operations, and its image, than it is in uncovering the truth.

But the plot of "Secret Sanction" isn't what makes it such a compelling read. That honor goes to Haig's characters, Drummond chief among them. He's smart, to be sure, but he's also a smartass and a maverick. He's got a great deal of respect for the Army, but very little for the sometimes idiotic way the Big Green Machine goes about its tasks. But don't let his hard-bitten irreverence fool you: He's a patriot down to his olive-green BVDs.

Haig effectively manages to achieve what every novelist sets out to do, although few do it so well. He speaks in a distinctly different voice for each of his characters. His generals sound like the high-ranking bullies they sometimes are, and his grunts talk like grunts in the real world. The same goes for Drummond's black female law clerk, a no-nonsense, sarcastic, don't-mess-with-me career GI who keeps Drummond focused.

Haig comes by his insightful knowledge of the Army honestly. He's a West Point graduate, now retired from a career as a military strategist. And yes, he's the son of the former secretary of state.

The action, and the entertainment, of "Secret Sanction" starts on page one, and 405 pages later, his readers can only hope that Haig is already at work on his next Drummond thriller. — Don Dale

Ludlum's Last

Many of his faithful readers were saddened by the death of novelist Robert Ludlum. For close to three decades, Ludlum mesmerized readers with his books of conspiracies and explosive plots. His final novel (unless other manuscripts are revealed), "The Sigma Protocol" (St Martins Press, $27.95), is a dramatic adventure that bears his trademark of organizations with hidden, devious agendas, large-scale duplicity and accidental heroes.

Ben Hartman is in Zurich, Switzerland, to complete some business transactions for his father's corporation. He's also coming to grips with the death of his brother Peter three years earlier. While on a busy street he sees an old Princeton classmate who promptly pulls a gun and tries, unsuccessfully, to kill him.

Meanwhile, Anna Navarro, a special agent for the Department of Justice, is unexpectedly transferred to a top-secret section that examines delicate governmental activities. Her assignment is to investigate the deaths within a two-month period of 11 old men from all over the world. The common denominator is that each man was connected to several files labeled "Sigma" that were found at the CIA.

Inevitably, Anna and Ben's lives intersect when individual searches uncover a corporate alliance dating back to World War II and involving certain businesses in collusion with the Nazis.

In his last effort, Ludlum takes the reader on a dizzying merry-go-round involving money laundering, high-level treachery and a devilish intent to justify worldwide havoc. "The Sigma Protocol" is a fitting legacy to a fine writer, who will be missed. — Bruce Simon



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