by Dan Zigmond

With Vietnam a major trading partner and Russian virtually the second language of Silicon Valley, the intersecting wars of the late 20th century are gradually fading from our collective consciousness. But literature moves at a pace slower than politics. If newspapers are the first draft of history, novels have the luxury of being the second, third or 10th. Great books of the Vietnam War are still appearing, nearly four decades after Tim O’Brien got his start.

Now, just as Graham Greene and John le Carre penned the essential novels of the Cold War, so has writer and journalist Bob Shacochis given us a new masterpiece, every bit their equal, that will surely stand as the definitive political thriller of those fragile years of relative peace before Sept. 11, 2001.

Shacochis begins “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” in the largely forgotten U.S. intervention in Haiti in bob-schacochis_the Clinton years, not far from the fictionalized Caribbean setting of his first novel, the acclaimed “Swimming in the Volcano” (1993). Tom Harrington, a Miami human rights lawyer, has just returned from that tortured island, where he has visited regularly throughout the occupation to investigate atrocities on all sides. Shacochis describes Tom’s first forays there in richly evocative prose that eerily foretells the false promises of America’s future military adventures:

“With the arrival of the Americans in 1994, Tom could not quite fathom the magnitude of their power or the grandness of its orchestration and was struck, like everyone else on the ground, by the naked sense of wonder, the beautiful bay that mocked the seaside slums floating an armada of enormous warships, glittering like waterborne villages on oceanic prairies, the dark waves of Black Hawk helicopters fluttering insectlike against the orange screen of sunset.”

Later Tom meets Jackie Scott, an American photographer - “blonde, young, infuriating” - and allows her to accompany him in his work. His initial interest quickly turns to infatuation, and Jackie becomes for Tom “the American ideal, the girl every boy dreamed of courting and winning” and “the one they could never stop needing and never stop hating and never get out of their minds.” Soon the two have left the capital together and are “hurtling through an arid, corroded landscape, the foothills brambled with cactus and thorny scrub” driving along “a tremendous wall of emaciated mountainsides and bone-white peaks once crowned by forests.”

Their inevitable affair is torrid, but brief, and Harrington resumes the everyday drudgery of international justice, “tracking down witnesses and survivors, taking depositions, organizing the bone diggers.” Then, as the last American soldiers are pulling out two years later, he is asked to return once more to Haiti, this time to investigate Jackie’s death.

Shacochis could have produced a first-rate novel out of this material alone, but instead these beguiling early chapters serve as a prelude to a much grander endeavor. Once Tom Harrington solves the puzzle of Jackie’s murder to his own satisfaction, Shacochis leaves him and Haiti behind to explore the contorted path that brought her to the island. Backstory that most writers might gloss in a line or two - a high-ranking diplomat’s upbringing in Croatia, an exceptional soldier’s storied career as a Special Forces operative, a teenage girl’s formative years in modern Turkey - are probed instead in virtual novellas of their own.

Yet these apparent digressions are not mere indulgences. Each rewards a most careful reading, and not only for the priceless prose and unforgettable characters. Shacochis’ knack for the pitch-perfect observation extends far beyond the “splashy colors” of Haiti. Eastern European apparatchiks become “jowly ministers in fedoras and felt overcoats that hung off their frames like Mongolian yurts,” while aging American military officers are “people who look down and see the top of their stomachs.” Meanwhile, the friends and enemies from these surprising sections slowly re-emerge to play pivotal roles in the book’s central mystery, until all the players become so intricately intertwined, the plot so exquisitely crafted, as to put more workaday thrillers to shame.

A few threads are left untied. What one character dubs the “implicit unwholesomeness” of Jackie’s relationship to her father is somehow rendered both too obvious to ignore and too subtle to comprehend. But by the end, that initial U.S. involvement in Haiti has been convincingly recast as a critical episode within the confused interregnum between the larger wars of two centuries, a compendium of lessons America would spend the next decades painfully relearning. Throughout it all, “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” paints a vivid and convincing portrait of the clandestine world of the “architects of the unseen,” those who lie in wait in Arlington and Langley, forever fighting their “perpetual war” and nudging us toward the next incarnation of “the conflict between ultimate good and ultimate evil.”

“Americans were not built to take these matters seriously,” Harrington observes back in Haiti, “until their faces were rubbed in the awfulness they sometimes made when they were seized by the exalted passion to remake the world.” Once again, Shacochis proves that he does take our recent history seriously, and his engaging, challenging and thoroughly satisfying new novel does, too. There may be no final drafts of history, but this one will be read and reread for many years to come.

Menlo Park writer Dan Zigmond is a contributing editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. E-mail: books@sfchronicle.com