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SAHARA\ By Clive Cussler\ Simon & Schuster. 541 pages. $23.\ THRILLER REVIEW

Clive Cussler's new best seller, Sahara, starts on the James River during the Civil War, ends at Pebble Beach four years from now and features more escapes than a Houdini road tour.

His 11th thriller brings his hero, Dirk Pitt, back again to save the world from wrongdoers, this time in the form of an evil West African despot and his French entrepreneur crony. The book opens with a couple of unrelated stories that are soon forgotten: one about a river battle from the Civil War, the other about the trans-African flight attempt of an early aviator.Then the story of a world-ending plague is introduced and you find yourself, for a while, asking what the heck the battle and flight blurbs were all about. You know they are going to tie in, but you become so entrenched in the jams Pitt gets into and out of, that just as you're forgetting about them, there they are.

Dirk Pitt and his longtime pal and assistant, Al Giordino, are assigned to find the source of red tides threatening to destroy Earth's source of oxygen, the oceans. To do this, they must navigate the Niger River through the turf of Zateb Kazim, modeled after Saddam Hussein and Simon Legree.

He wants Pitt's souped-up boat. Pitt won't let him have it and comes upon Kazim's running mate, Yves Massarde, who cares about nothing and no one except money and himself. Pitt, whose altruism is rivaled only by Batman's, hates this kind of scum and goes through hell to stop them. But, as they say at Pitt's headquarters, ``If anyone can walk through hell and come back with a glass of ice Tequila, it's Dirk Pitt.'

The book is a little Superman-ish (as in, ``Superman is the only one who can save us now') but you can't help but cheer for Pitt. He's just that kind of guy.

Cussler also sprinkles in notable peculiarities. He makes a cameo appearance; he implants characters from his hometowns of Denver and Paradise Valley, Ariz.; the car he appears with on the back dust cover is instrumental to the story; and he alters a big piece of American history via poetic license.

Mixed into all this is a subtle message that the Earth will serve its inhabitants only to the degree that they serve her. The fact that Cussler is redundant with the red tides' threat is perhaps there to enforce that point.

It is a fast-moving odyssey that is never short on the ``oh-no-now-they-are-doomed' scenes that Ian Fleming used so well. Indeed, James Bond fans will love this book, and everyone else will like it a lot.

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