City of Gold

Len Deighton, Author HarperCollins Publishers $20 (375p) ISBN 978-0-06-017937-3

If the author of The Ipcress File is not at the very top of his form here, he nevertheless produces an absorbing and well-crafted WW II thriller. In January 1942, infamous Gen. Erwin Rommel is making a seemingly unstoppable march on Cairo, the ``city of gold.'' Former Glasgow police detective Bert Cutler, now an Army captain, has been charged to uncover the spy who is feeding the Desert Fox information enabling him to thwart all British strategies. En route to his new post, Cutler escorts fellow Scotsman Jimmy Ross, accused of murder, to the military prison in Cairo. When Cutler dies of a heart attack in their private train compartment, Ross assumes his identity. Readers might expect that Ross's efforts to carry off the impersonation and capture Rommel's agent will be the focus of this 24th offering from an acknowledged master of espionage fiction, yet Ross is only one member of an intriguing ensemble cast, which includes a society girl turned undercover agent, a British deserter heading up a band of renegades, an exiled Russian prince and King Farouk himself. Story lines concern not just the war but also black-market activities and the efforts of Jewish operatives to arm themselves for the anticipated battle for a homeland. Directing his varied characters and juggling his many subplots, Deighton demonstrates enviable legerdemain. Literary Guild main selection. (July)