May 07, 1990 12:00 PM

by Arthur Hailey

Getting annoyed at schlockmeisters like Arthur Hailey is as useful as getting mad at the Mississippi River. They both just keep rolling along.

This time out, the author of Airport and Hotel takes on network news, as embodied by the mythical CBA. The news is not good. When anchorman Crawford Sloane’s wife, Jessica, their 11-year-old son, Nicky, and Crawf’s father are kidnapped by South American terrorists, CBA swings into action. They put their best people on the case. The point man is lanky, globe-trotting correspondent Harry Partridge, “whose untidy shock of hair had always made him look boyish and still did.” He is the craggy-featured Crawford’s rival for anchorman supremacy, not to mention being Jessica’s former lover.

Bound, abused and drugged, Jessica, Nicky and Angus are secreted in caskets and taken to Peru, where they are to be kept until the terrorists’ demands are met: CBA must cancel a week’s worth of evening news programs and instead screen cassettes spelling out the details of the terrorists’ goals and grievances.

But don’t give up on the hostages. By the strangest coincidence, Jessica once took a course in dealing with terrorists. And don’t give up on CBA. Partridge, haunted by memories of his dead, Italian, former stewardess wife, Gemma, decides to go to Peru and rescue the hostages.

To prove he is of substantial intent, Hailey interrupts his narrative for clumsy discourses on the larger issues: freedom of the press, the dangers of conglomerates taking over networks (CBA is owned by the many-tentacled Globanic Industries), etc., etc.

Don’t read too closely though. In this novel, characters speak in soap opera sound bites. One can almost see where the commercials would fall. Consider the exchange between Les Chippingham, the “permanently horny” CBA news president, and Margot Lloyd Mason, the icy, driven network president:

Les: “I’m the news president, aren’t I? Margot, I appeal to you. What’s Harry done?”

Margot: if you must know, it’s a question of his type of coverage.”

Les (regarding her suspiciously): “This is Globanic’s work, isn’t it. (Intuition hits.) It’s your friend, that cold-blooded tyrant. Theodore Elliott!”

And now a word from our sponsors. (Doubleday, $21.95)

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