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Finder's 'Killer' is another masterful thriller

Killer Instinct
By Joseph Finder
St. Martin’s Press, 406 pp, $24.95

The most successful writers are often the ones who either anticipate the trends or create trends of their own, expanding their books into areas that haven't already been mined to death. In recent years, that's what Tom Clancy did with military thrillers, and what Dan Brown did with the religious thriller.

With his third novel in as many years to deal with a similar theme, Joseph Finder has firmly established himself as the master of the corporate thriller, doing for the country's boardrooms and executive suites what John Grisham did for its courtrooms.

Finder's latest book, ``Killer Instinct," is a riveting exploration of the world of Jason Steadman , a top-performing salesman for Entronics , a multinational electronics company that makes state-of-the-art plasma screens.

Steadman is the kind of person who listens to motivational tapes in his car every day and studies books like ``Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun." He believes the mantra that ``business is war," but inside he's still too soft, too nice of a guy. He lacks the killer instinct that he needs to rise to the top.

After Steadman wrecks his car one day, he strikes up a conversation with the tow truck driver, a former soldier recently returned from Iraq. Kurt Semko served with the Army's Special Forces, the Green Berets, and he's a dangerous character whose steely bravado draws the salesman to him like a moth to a flame. Semko is the kind of tough guy that Steadman only wishes he could be.

That becomes even more apparent when the salesman's bonhomie starts to cause him trouble at work. He has a few deals languishing on the table that he just can't seem to close, and it's about to cost him a big promotion. When Steadman's new pal Semko offers to help him out, it's only natural to accept.

That decision sets a chain of events in motion that eventually finds Steadman careening down a slippery slope, speeding out of control. Although at first Semko seems like a valuable ally, he soon proves to be a hazardous one, boosting Steadman toward the top only by crushing everyone who stands in his way.

Finder, a former academic and journalist, has clearly done his research. He flavors his story with fascinating inside details drawn from the high-tech world his characters inhabit, while never letting the jargon become intrusive. Even better, his characters speak the languages of salesmen and soldiers, with all the authentic attitudes and behaviors native to those groups.

Last year's ``Company Man" was a gripping thriller with an intriguing plot, but Finder has outdone himself this time. ``Killer Instinct" is a superb story that dazzles with its heart-pounding suspense, even while posing deeper questions about the ethics of business and what we're willing to do to get ahead.

By focusing on the relentless pace of the main plot and keeping the subplots to a minimum, Finder has tightened the narrative until it hums like a violin string. Clear your schedule before you start reading ``Killer Instinct." This is one of those books that, once you start reading, you won't be able to put down.

David J. Montgomery is the editor of Mystery Ink ( ).

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