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from saturday's books section

There are many points of difference between mysteries and thrillers - structure, pacing, twists - but a chief dissimilarity is this: In the former, we don't know whodunit until the end; in the latter, we usually meet the black hats early on, and the tension resides in the pursuit, in how they get caught. (Not whether they get caught; that's called literature.)

Linwood Barclay's latest, Never Look Away, starts as a mystery, revolving around the inexplicable disappearance of a young wife and mother. A heap of clues suggests her husband, David Harwood, did her in - but we know that can't be true because he's the protagonist, the good guy, and he's crazy about her.

No other suspects have appeared a third of the way through the novel, and that's when Barclay revs into thriller mode by letting us know that someone has done a brilliant job of framing Harwood. Professional courtesy prevents this reviewer from outing the evildoer, whose unmasking provides one of an extravagant number of twists. (The dust jacket features a roller-coaster, a symbolic motif of the novel.)

Barclay has done something rare and admirable in the creation of a hero who is so understated that one actually hesitates to call him a hero. Harwood, a reporter with the Promise Falls, N.Y., Standard, is a polite, well-meaning striver who has never realized his potential (as a close acquaintance remarks) and probably never will. A restaurateur describes him thus to a cop: "He's a very nice man. And he always leaves a fair tip. Not, you know, huge, but just about right."

Harwood doesn't come across as a Yank, but maybe Promise Falls, somewhere north of Albany, is close enough to our border for this very nice man to have picked up a quintessential Canadianness. Either that, or his creator, a former Toronto Star writer, isn't comfortable with the American stereotype, the wise-cracking but emotionally flawed tough guy.

At any rate, our hearts go out to Harwood, who is ineffectual in resolving the difficulties he faces. Everyone in town but his mom, dad and toddler son thinks he killed his wife. Meanwhile, his publisher is killing his stories, about municipal politicians cozying up to Star Spangled Corrections, a nasty corporation operating private prisons for profit.

Newspaper work is no longer fun for Harwood. In a desperate survival gamble, The Standard has not only dropped its weekly books section (horrible enough), but is outsourcing the local news: Low-cost stringers in Mumbai watch Promise Falls council meetings live on the Internet, and e-mail their copy to city desk.

For most of its 415 pages, the story moves at the speed of a downhill racer, but runs into sticky snow in the late chapters; in what should be a gripping climax to an otherwise gripping tale, the reader is subject to lengthy he-said, she-said rehashes of who did what to whom and why. The last twist, the one too many, is unconvincing.

But the characters feel real, and the plotting is otherwise ironclad; no Grisham-like plot-holes on this twisty road. Barclay also exhibits a nice sense of humour. Hints of Elmore Leonard. Softer, more thoughtful. More Canadian.

William Deverell's latest Arthur Beauchamp novel, Snow Job, a tongue-in-cheek political thriller, was recently published.

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