July 31, 1995 12:00 PM

by Anthony Hyde

There are certain terms critics trot out to describe good thrillers: riveting, packs a wallop, spine-tingling, crackling with suspense. In other words, Formosa Straits. Cao Dai, perhaps a former collaborator with the Japanese, maybe a spy for the Americans, without question Taiwan’s underworld boss, is dead—and at a most inconvenient time for Nick Lamp, the San Francisco-born son of Chinese parents. The ambitious head of a small-time Taipei-based trading company, Nick had been seeking Cao’s help on a big deal—Dai had known his father, he reminded the kingpin in a letter. He’d finally arranged the meeting, and now, no deal.

Worse than that, Nick found the bloody corpse, and suddenly, it seems, everybody’s after him. Searching for the truth and running for his life, Nick embarks on a journey into the most remote reaches of China and to stunning revelations about his own family.

Rich in atmosphere, the film-noirish Formosa Straits works as more than just a page-turner. There are history lessons—Mao Tse Tung and his actress wife play roles in the novel—speculations about China’s national character and canny references to old movies.

Hyde plays his clues close to his vest throughout the novel. That’s fine—sort of. But part of the fun of a thriller is the chance to sort things out along with the protagonist. There’s little such opportunity in Formosa Straits, which at times seems willfully convoluted. Hyde is thus left with an awful lot of business to take care of in the last few pages, and that’s no way to treat a reader who has gone clear to Shanghai with you. (Knopf, $23)

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