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"The Prometheus Deception," by Robert Ludlum; "Unwise Passions," by Alan Pell Crawford.

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Spies and Danger A principal component of any Robert Ludlum thriller is a world split apart by global disunity, political paranoia and a shadowy organization with a dangerous agenda for domination. "The Prometheus Deception" (St. Martin's Press, $27.95) returns the reader to Ludlum's familiar territory with results that are unexpected and ultimately satisfying. Nicholas Bryson is an operative for a secret group within the CIA known as the Directorate. An accomplished linguist and unequalled in hand-to-hand combat, Bryson has infiltrated renegade terrorist cells and trained freedom fighters in hostile dictatorships. After being betrayed and almost killed in North Africa, and after the disappearance of his wife, Elena, Bryson is retired by the Directorate and reinvented as a lecturer in foreign affairs at a college in Pennsylvania. Five years later he is jolted from seclusion. He learns that the Directorate was in reality a masterpiece of treachery, spawned by Soviet intelligence. As he tries to discover the truth, Bryson is in danger and the reader is swept along. Robert Ludlum has outdone himself with this novel that contains action and unbridled ruthlessness under the guise of respectability. The reader will be a willing captive to a winding plot where alliances are unclear and loyalties are blurred. — Bruce Simon "Unwise Passions," a Virginia Story In what reads like a true life "Fall of the House of Usher," Richmond writer Alan Pell Crawford weaves a disturbing tale of the decline of the prominent Randolph family during the early days of the republic. "Unwise Passions" (Simon & Schuster, $27.50) tells the story of Nancy Randolph who was accused in 1793 of murdering her own newborn child. That the child was rumored to be the product of an illicit union with her brother-in-law and cousin, Richard Randolph, only served to bring greater disrepute onto the then-18-year-old Virginia woman. Nancy was lucky enough to find competent legal representation in Patrick Henry and John Marshall who successfully defended her. While she escaped punishment from the courts, her reputation was ruined, and she was hated by some of her closest family members. One cousin who would never tire of assailing her virtue was Jack Randolph, a bachelor congressman who earned a reputation as Virginia's fiercest defender of state sovereignty. Jack scored points with Jeffersonian Virginians when he blasted a standing army as "the downfall of every free state," and then wrote a saucy letter to President Adams relating an assault on his person by a Marine who was offended by his speech. Jack would spend much of his life defending his native Virginia, but he could never forgive Nancy for the public dishonor she brought on the family. He even blamed her for Richard's death. Nancy was, according to Jack, not only a murderer and an incestuous paramour, but a prostitute and a sexual partner of slaves. Was Nancy Randolph guilty of all these charges? The reader will have to decide. Whether Nancy Randolph comes across as a moral abomination or a much-maligned woman, "Unwise Passions" tells a compelling story. Set against the backdrop of our young country's most crucial challenges (the War of 1812, threats of Southern secession) Crawford's dramatic tale gives us many facts that we didn't get in social studies class. His narrative draws its power, in part, from a mythic sense of doom that brings down one of Virginia's most prominent plantation families. Whether you are a serious student of history or someone who simply loves a page-turner, "Unwise Passions" will hold your attention to the end. — John Toivonen Heads Up: Sylvia Higginbotham will sign her book "Marvelous Old Mansions and Other Southern Treasures" at the Museum of the Confederacy Dec. 5 from 3-5 p.m. Charles R. Bryan Jr. and Nelson D. Lankford, editors of "Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey will sign the book at Barnes&Noble, Libbie Place, Sunday, Dec.10 at 2

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