Picks and Pans Review: China White

updated 12/05/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/05/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Peter Maas

Toot, toot! Here comes China white, heroin from Asia's golden triangle so pure and potent that it can be snorted or smoked instead of injected. The subject seems perfect for a true-crime master like Maas (Serpico, The Valachi Papers). Instead, the author turns it into fiction, not always with mellow results.

In New York City, the Chinese criminal societies called triads, older than the Mafia, are negotiating with the Italians to distribute their product, which they plan to smuggle out of Asia through Red China. It doesn't take former prosecutor Tom MacLean, now with a prestigious law firm, to learn that his rich Hong Kong client, Y.K. Deng, is anything but a legitimate businessman. With sometime-girlfriend Shannon O'Shea, an FBI agent, Tom is swept into a labyrinth of deceit.

Although he is nowhere as sententious as Tom Clancy, Maas pauses often to pronounce on the history of the drug trade, the triads and Chinatown youth gangs. His characters are stock players: Shannon is darn plucky and just happens to speak several arcane dialects of Chinese; Tom is Ivy League sharp, with a father who has retired from running the CIA in Saigon during the Vietnam War. The villains are more interesting, particularly Deng's bodyguard Chao Yu, who performs nastily inventive murders. Yet, in this case, fact seems stranger—and stronger—than fiction. It probably would have been more satisfying too. (Simon & Schuster, $23)

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