The retooling of the lucrative political-thriller industry continues at an impressive pace. Their premises shaken by the ignominious collapse of the long-reliable Soviet Menace, even authors like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum have been forced to make do with lesser villains. But the problem is that while drug smugglers and international terrorists make suitably despicable antagonists, they're far from satisfactory as threats to destroy civilization and usher in the reign of universal darkness.
Enter Dr. Paul Osborn, the hero of previously unknown screenwriter Alan Folsom's improbable, page-turning whopper The Day After Tomorrow. A Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon by trade, Osborn is killing time in a Paris bistro when he glances across the room and recognizes the man who murdered his father 28 years ago on a Boston street. Before you can say quelle coincidence, Osborn attacks. Alas, the killer escapes, launching the good doctor on a quest to track him down. Before exacting his revenge, Osborn is determined to learn why his father died, and thus destroy his ''tragic demon: the numbing, emasculating, terror of abandonment.''
Meanwhile, in London, a second plain-spoken, virile American confronts a seemingly unrelated mystery. Detective William McVey, a brilliantly unorthodox cop-is there any other kind?-has been summoned from the LAPD to help solve a series of bewildering homicides. It seems that headless corpses and corpseless heads are turning up with grim regularity all over Europe, and the flummoxed authorities figure serial murder is one area in which American expertise might prove decisive.
And how right they are. The first thing McVey notices is that the heads have been severed with surgical precision. Then autopsies reveal that each victim has been frozen solid-and not in some ghoul's basement meat locker, either, but chilled to a temperature hundreds of degrees below zero. At absolute zero, an expert affirms, it would be theoretically possible to perform ''microsurgery beyond conception the head of one person fused to the body of another.'' So guess who's waiting to be thawed out and given a brand new phy-sique? Think hard. Anyhow, while Interpol's scratching its own collective head over that one, the two ballsy Californians have gotten together, and, quelle coincidence, the murder of Osborn's father and the case of the ''modern-day Frankenstein'' have begun to show connections.
But despite the likelihood that anyone whose body temperature registers in the double digits will deduce the identity of the frozen head hundreds of pages in advance, author Folsom serves up a veritable encyclopedia of planes, trains, automobiles, plastic explosives, hairbreadth escapes, and passionate clinches before the detective reveals his theory. ''McVey, I think you've been * in Hollywood too long,'' responds an incredulous member of the German Federal Police. ''Why don't you try selling that to the movies?''
Ah, but the clever author already has. Having pocketed a $2 million publisher's advance, Folsom has also sold the screen rights to his novel for another $1.5 million. Now if only somebody can turn this ingenious gimmick into an even faintly credible story.