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An Evening Walk, a Missing Spouse
A spy thriller that plays out on the mean streets of Georgetown.

By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

VANISHED

By Joseph Finder

St. Martin's. 388 pp. $25.99

The opening scene of Joseph Finder's new novel is a humdinger. Late one rainy evening, a middle-aged couple, Lauren and Roger Heller, walk back to their Mercedes after a mediocre evening at a Georgetown sushi restaurant. Just as they reach a deserted stretch of Water Street, Roger realizes he's left his car keys at the restaurant and sprints back to get them. Left alone in the darkness, Lauren is suddenly attacked from behind. She scuffles with her assailant and, somehow, the noise reaches the retreating Roger. The last thing Lauren hears before she falls victim to a serious concussion is the voice of her husband, shouting the cryptic words, "Why her?"

If, as a reader, you attempt to make sense of the plot that follows -- a plot that has more twists and folds in it than the human small intestine -- you, too, may feel as woozy as Lauren does upon awakening in the hospital two days later. Finder writes in the rat-a-tat, short-chapters-always-ending-with-a-cliffhanger style perfected by Dan Brown in "The Da Vinci Code." Sometimes, though, in the service of conjuring up those boffo endings, Finder's plot doesn't add up; even worse, he occasionally doesn't play fair with the reader. (For instance, right before the attack we hear Lauren muse to herself about how much "she loved and admired" her husband; the truth -- at least the truth as it's revealed midway through the novel -- is somewhat messier.) Irritating, but not a deal breaker. This is a thriller to enjoy for its Washington locales, convincing familiarity with cutting-edge spy gadgetry and taut action scenes. If you're looking for logic, read Kant.

When Lauren comes to, she learns that Roger has disappeared. Enter our hero, Roger's estranged brother, Nick. While Roger followed in their father's footsteps and became a financial wizard with that cool Mercedes and a nice mansion in Chevy Chase, Nick served in the Special Forces in Iraq and now works as an operative for a corporate espionage firm. Quick with his gun finger and with a hoary Dan Quayle joke, Nick is a likable tough guy who can justifiably boast that "after five years of working the dark side of Washington, D.C., both in the government and out . . . I knew someone in just about every three-letter government agency." Before this tale ends, most of those contacts are tapped as Nick scrambles to protect both Lauren and his slacker teenage nephew from sadistic mercenaries while racing to find out the real reason behind Roger's vanishing act.

Any thriller that uses Dean & Deluca's celebrated chocolate chip cookies as an investigatory tool deserves kudos for cleverness. What "Vanished" lacks in narrative coherence, it makes up for in invention.

Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course in detective fiction at Georgetown University.

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