Shelfari edited the description of LACKING VIRTUES Saturday, November 19, 2011.
Steven LeConte has all the qualities that propel a young man to success. He is bright, handsome, charming . . . the list is long. Yet, at age 27, this scion of a prominent Connecticut family is teaching tennis in Paris. His journalistic aspirations have produced a few dazzling leads but not a single completed article. If he can take pride in one achievement, which he does not, it is the prodigious number of girls he has coaxed from the tennis club into his bed. A small inheritance from his aunt is nearly exhausted; he faces an uncertain future. As if to highlight his professional shortcomings, he has befriended his neighbor, Sophie Marx, the retired Paris bureau chief of the New York Times. In contrast to his own lack of output, her freelance articles appear at a dizzy pace in the Western world’s best newspapers and magazines. Sophie has just embarked on a new venture: to chronicle the life of France’s leading right-wing politician. At age 70, she is unable to do the legwork herself, and opts to involve Steven. It is an offer he can’t refuse, though he isn’t sure her plans meet even his own low moral standards. She wants him to go to the Riviera, where her subject’s daughter is spending the summer. And then? He is to follow the guiding light of his golden schwanz (her terminology) and see if he can get close to the father through 19-year-old Nicole. His initial hesitation is quickly overcome by a photograph of this ravishing beauty. How could he have said No anyway: his soul mate, Sophie, will become his protégé and unlock the doors he has not been able to open on his own. Or such is his belief. He accepts, he succeeds – and falls deeply in love. Simultaneously, a dark remnant of the Cold War makes its debut. An unemployed KGB agent, East German Walter Claussen, has become an entrepreneur in the new free market created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. He alone controls a weapon of mass destruction that has slipped beneath the radar of American intelligence: after the Cuban missile crisis, several of the best minds in the Kremlin developed the means to sabotage American jetliners, should the US ever decide to mount a conventional war in Europe. In France, Claussen finds a group willing to buy his services for their own political and financial gain. American passenger jets undergo a series of deadly mishaps that seem unrelated. Frank Warner, the meticulous head of air crash investigations at the NTSB, is unable to find a common thread. The public experiences a collective fear of flying as never before. In a prelude to 9/11, the economy reels and the government – helped along by Claussen – becomes a blundering pawn of its own Iraq fixation. Warner is about to be fired and the wrong culprit is about to be incinerated in an eerie foreshadowing of the future. Then, at the eleventh hour, comes Steven’s chance discovery: the usual Arab suspects are not behind the diabolical attack on American aviation. Sophie is unable to convince American government and intelligence officials of the truth, so set in their thinking are they. Near despair, with the clock running out, she remembers Frank Warner, an acquaintance from a previous collaboration. Warner, who is convinced, takes word of Steven and Sophie’s discovery to a White House briefing, only to encounter war fever so virulent the facts fall on deaf ears. Warner must go to France – to hell with his job description. He and Steven, in a series of harrowing surveillance attempts, come face-to-face with Claussen, a professional killer. It is a confrontation needed to prove the truth with concrete visible evidence, a confrontation in which someone must die. Can Steven, underachiever cum laude, succeed at last? And if he does, can he convince Nicole that his love for her – initially based on deception – is real? The suspense grows unbearable as we near a climax that will leave the reader emotionally spent, yet thoroughly exhilarated.