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Cultures Clash In Twisty Mystery For Young Adults

It's a comment on the sorry state of the American thriller that one of the most engrossing suspense novels of the year is a Young Adult title printed in large-font type. Thrillers increasingly fall into two categories: The author concocts an outlandishly grisly crime (psycho removes victims' spleens, say) to grab our attention, or cooks up a far-fetched conspiracy featuring an ancient Hebrew manuscript, Renaissance painting and/or the Vatican. Peter Abrahams does neither. Like his excellent and undervalued novels for adults (and his superb Echo Falls series for children), Abrahams' Reality Check is reality-based, character-driven and riveting.

Small-town Colorado high school football star Cody Laredo is devoted to his beautiful, brainy girlfriend Clea Weston. But Clea's rich parents don't approve of her romance with the D-student from the wrong side of the tracks, so they send her off to a New England boarding school where, one wintry day, she disappears.

Though the cops are on the job, stout-hearted Cody heads east to find his girl. Undereducated, inarticulate and athletic, he's a character straight out of Friday Night Lights who's about to enter the world of Donna Tartt, where effete kids drink brandy, edit lit magazines and throw around phrases in French.

Cody isn't pretentious or self-aware, which is not to say he's stupid. Part of the pleasure of this novel is watching an unworldly young man acquire a little sophistication and self-understanding while solving an agreeably modest, twisty mystery. His tools are determination, intuition and a random scrap of poetry, one of the few bits of learning he took from his high school English class: "Screw your courage to the sticking place/And we'll not fail." The way this rousing line from Macbeth (Cody feels the meaning, but can't name the source) directs both his inner journey and intrepid sleuthing says far more about the power of poetry than any prep school lit magazine.

Is this the best work Peter Abrahams has published? No. Abrahams' most dazzling novels are, in order, End of Story, Oblivion, Nerve Damage and The Tutor. But even second-tier Abrahams is smarter, sharper and far more richly rewarding than the latest fatuous gorefest or Dan Brown knockoff.

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Jennifer Reese