"Everyone in the book has to define what heroism means to them."

When PW pulls into the driveway of John Katzenbach's home on an Amherst, Mass., cul de sac, we're surprised to hear another car's engine rupture the suburban silence. We put the gearshift in park, step into the cold New England February and see that a Nissan Pathfinder has materialized behind us.

Dismounting is a tall man with long arms, wire-rimmed sunglasses and stringy, brown hair, his face clean shaven and barely recognizable as the intense, mustached man gracing the mass market editions of his works. After introducing himself, Katzenbach says: "There's a bit of a problem." A family crisis has forced him to spend much of the afternoon at Hartford's Bradley International Airport, potentially derailing the interview.

"If you like, you can hang out here for about four hours and play with Bullet until I get back," he says, gesturing to the black poodle that has heeled before him, looking to be scratched. "We'll talk then." He begins unpacking his vehicle. "Or wait -- I just had an idea," he says, poking his head out from the back of the car. "You can ride along and we can do the interview on the way."

Driving through Amherst in his other car, a British racing green Audi, Katzenbach seems remarkably cool, discussing the issues of duty and patriotism at the core of his seventh thriller, Hart's War, out this month from Ballantine -- issues that he has long sought to resolve in his own life.

Thirty years ago, during his sophomore year at Bard College, military service beckoned. The Vietnam war was raging, and though he declined to take a student deferment -- "my one moral statement of the whole war," he says with some irony -- he did organize the papers needed for a 1-Y classification. It worked. Doctors deemed the knee he tore up playing soccer a liability, and he returned to school.

But the legitimacy of his injury has done little to allay his guilt. "Even with the bum knee," he begins, but his voice trails off. "If you were any kind of sensitive person," he resumes, "you knew that as soon as you found a way out, somebody else didn't." He pauses again. "In life, any action, any moment, can have defining qualities. That was such a moment." Another pensive pause. "You get to this as a writer. You never get to it all at once, but if you're not troubled by these things, then you're not paying attention to your craft."

His decision was made more painful by his upbringing and his father's heroic legacy. As a child, Katzenbach recalls playing with Craig McNamara, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's son, on the Washington Mall. Katzenbach's father, a law professor who worked in the Kennedy and LBJ administrations, had also served as an Air Force navigator, was shot down over the Mediterranean in WWII and spent three years in a German POW camp. Decades later, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach became the Deputy Attorney General who stared down George Wallace at an Alabama university, fighting racism with the same conviction as the characters who would later animate his son's books.

Hart's War, then, is John Katzenbach's first novel to burrow into both the nation's history and his own. It takes place in a German POW camp not unlike the one in which his father was held. Yet despite its military setting, the story begins like a legal thriller. Behind the lines of Stalag Luft 13, the African-American POW Lincoln Scott is accused of murdering a fellow prisoner, a bigoted southerner. Scott's motives seem clear enough: Vincent Bedford (known as "Trader Vic" because, as a camp procurer, "rarely did he come out on the wrong end of an exchange") taunted Scott and once even sent the unsuspecting flyer beyond barbed wire to retrieve a softball, where he was vulnerable to being shot by the camp guards. But Scott insists he is innocent of the murder. German and American commanders enlist another POW, navigator Tommy Hart, a Harvard Law student, to defend Scott in what they expect will be a kangaroo court. Each side has its own reasons for wanting Scott convicted, and the matter speedily resolved. Hart, a prisoner so industrious that he receives educational materials in the camp to continue his studies (as, incidentally, did Nicholas Katzenbach), is not prepared to become their flunky. He believes Scott to be innocent and scurries off on risky nighttime missions to search the crime scene. Then, before a rapt audience of prisoners and guards, he uses slick lawyerly moves to trap the prosecution.

For all its legal-thriller trappings, the last quarter of Hart's War becomes something else: a great escape that evokes The Shawshank Redemption more than it d s To Kill a Mockingbird. "I wanted to throw a curveball," Katzenbach explains, a smile spreading across his face. "Readers think the protagonists are looking for the answer to a murder when what they are looking for is the way home. In WWII, or in any war, that's your main concern."

Maybe so, but in Hart's War, martyrdom and responsibility preoccupy characters as much as a breakout. In one scene, a Canadian soldier who is Hart's ally crawls away from safety to serve as a decoy for the other soldiers, whose escape plans the Germans nearly foil. "When you start to write a book, questions about heroism are in front of you," Katzenbach says. "I have a very simple, Hemingway-istic definition of heroism: Doing what you have to do at a given moment. It can be something as simple as living. It can be something as complicated as going underground when you're claustrophobic. Everyone in the book has to define what heroism means for them."

As a teenager in 1968, Katzenbach didn't stop to ask these questions, and he's still haunted by the repercussions. "You're confronted at a young age with a moral question. Those who went answered it correctly; I'm not at all sure that I did," he says. "That's what the book becomes about." His voice slows and falls to a hush. "It's about choice that's going to be with these people for the rest of their lives. How equipped was I to deal with this? Not very."

True Grit

As destiny would have it, Katzenbach graduated from Bard College yearning to be a writer. After several smaller journalism jobs, he landed at the crime desk of the Miami Herald, where he worked with Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan and Madeline Blais, whom he eventually married. He went on leave from the newspaper in 1986 to devote himself to his novels and is technically still employed there.

The stories he wrote while at the Herald have provided grist for his novels; Just Cause features a reporter investigating the crime of a death row inmate. Katzenbach also once covered the story of a sympathetic policeman who complied with a prisoner's plea not to cuff him as the two walked down the courthouse steps. The prisoner grabbed the officer's gun and shot him dead. This crime-beat sordidness suffuses his novels. The Traveler, for example, tells the story of a man on a killing spree who c rces a woman to ride with him and photograph his victims. "But what I really learned as a crime reporter," he says, "was that even in a small squib there's a huge, wondrously powerful story. I was looking at the Boston Globe a few years ago and put my finger on one of those small news items. I said to my wife: 'Someone should do a book about this.' But we were both too busy." What did it say? we ask. "Oh, just something like: 'Fishing Boat Andrea Gail Lost in Record Storm,' " a story for which Sebastian Junger, as it turns out, had enough time.

Despite his fascination with crime and war-books like Paul Fussell's Doing Battle and a WWII collection edited by Mordecai Richler line his walls-Katzenbach lives a placid, suburban life. He attends his son's basketball games. He hangs pictures of his daughter's childhood artwork on the walls of his study. And though his wife, a Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing and the author of In These Girls Hope Is a Muscle, is a professor at Amherst College, he stays out of the local literary scrums. ("I don't commune that much with the academic type. And I don't think the heavy-duty literary novelist wants anything to do with me, the slimeball pop novelist." He smirks. "I like it. It gives me a kind of reverse snobbishness.") When friends call after finishing one of his books about kidnappers and serial killers, they needle him about being "one sick bastard," Katzenbach says. In fact, he finds his quiet routine especially conducive to the sort of writing he d s. "If you had a really fascinating and adventurous life, you wouldn't have any time to write; you'd be too busy living. I guess if I was getting up in front of a writing class, I'd say, `Have a normal life.' "

His publishing history, on the other hand, has been tumultuous. In 1980, while still at the Herald, he sent a true-crime proposal to literary agent Gail Hochman, who passed it on to Bill Reiss, then of the Paul Reynolds agency. Reiss already repped many fiction writers and asked Katzenbach if he had a novel in his heart. So, while the nonfiction proposal languished in publishing purgatory, Katzenbach wrote the novel In the Heat of the Summer (the true-crime proposal became his second book and only work of nonfiction, First Born). Both titles were published by Atheneum.

Although the house treated him "with Maxwell Perkinsian respect," he soon followed his editor, Neil Nyren, to Putnam. Three books later, having fulfilled his contractual commitment to write novels "of psychological suspense" (he laughs at the thought -- "What novel isn't?"), he switched to Ballantine, his backlist publisher. "Carl [Hiaasen] left Putnam for the same reason I did. He didn't think he could fight his way past the woolly mammoths they had on their list." Katzenbach declines to mention by name the authors whom he felt grabbed the most attention at Putnam, but "part of the attraction in going to Ballantine," he says, "was that, although they had a pretty substantial list, they had fewer books and were going to make a bigger deal out of me."

Although Katzenbach d s not often reach blockbuster numbers, Ballantine continues to demonstrate a strong marketing commitment. Hollywood has taken a fancy to Katzenbach, too, adapting two of his books -- Just Cause and In the Heat of the Summer (renamed The Mean Season for the screen).

Hart's War has the look of a possible breakout. MGM bought it from Katzenbach's Hollywood agent, Gary Salt, when it was only one-third complete. And the current popularity of war movies gives it a certain timeliness. Still, his concerns about Hollywood persist -- he was "frustrated by aspects" of the adaptation of Just Cause, particularly the simplification of the protagonist. Recently, an MGM executive, apparently hoping to spice up Hart's War, even asked him if there were women in the POW camp.

Katzenbach harbors some skepticism toward the publishing industry, too. "There's this fear of the inventive, of what's different," he says. "And not just at Ballantine. Jesus, as a mystery-thriller writer, they would love it if I came up with a repetitive character. I don't want to do it. I think a lot of the people who are doing that now are closer to Lethal Weapon 4 than they are to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle."

Having toured the Hampshire valley by car and resolved the family crisis, a return to the author's study prompts some reflection on the circumstances that brought him to this point in his life and career.

Katzenbach gazes at a wartime photo that hangs near his computer. It shows his father, in full fighter regalia, a few sorties away from capture. The picture reminds Katzenbach of the lesson he has lived and learned, that, as he puts it, "No matter where we are, we are our history." Sometimes, Katzenbach continues, it is the mental imaging of an event, more than the event itself, that matters.

Indeed, when questioned on how he retains his sanity amid the violence and deprivations of the camp, Tommy Hart taps his forehead and says: "Sometimes, you've got to find your freedom up here." Katzenbach might say the same.