The Fifth Horseman

by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

Simon & Schuster, $13.95

Of all the ways that nations and individuals have devised to scare one another into submission, what is blandly referred to as “the nuclear threat” is unquestionably the scariest. That is why hundreds of books and movies telling of sabotage in nuclear plants and bombs hidden by maniacs have been so successful, and that is why The Fifth Horseman, surely the longest and probably the most convincing of these thrillers, is going to cause what its publishers call “a major sensation.” Let there be no doubt about it: this is a very, very scary book.
The bomb, a three-megaton hydrogen job, has been planted somewhere on Manhattan by a family of Palestinian terrorists, acting under the orders of Libya’s Qaddafi. Qaddafi tells the President that he wants the Israelis out of the occupied territories in less than three days, or he will set off the bomb. The President (unnamed, but sandyhaired and a firm believer in human rights) stalls; he calls in his advisers, the military, the NATO allies, Prime Minister Begin, the mayor of New York. The city is overrun with specially trained bomb squads and bewildered policemen; the terrorists smugly hide out in the suburbs. No one says a word to the press, and the potential victims unwittingly continue to eat pastrami and carry on love affairs.
Obviously, Collins and Lapierre have used in this fiction the same techniques that made their nonfiction (Is Paris Burning?, O Jerusalem!) so exciting. Facts about everything have been meshed with speculations about the behavior of real people and fantasies about the actions of fictional ones. Politics, always a delicate mechanism, is shown to be a matter of tact, and science a matter of one-upmanship. It is impossible to tell what is real and what is make-believe, which makes it all even scarier.
If there is still anyone who doesn’t have doubts about the Western reliance on technology, the strength of political ties, the ability of people to stick to their principles, or the accountability of government, The Fifth Horseman will persuade them to doubt. It will also raise questions about the wisdom of having a free press, the responsibilities of publishers, and the amount of money it is possible to make out of journalism.