PRINCE OF LOST PLACES

By Kathy Hepinstall

Putnam. 176 pp. $23.95

The novel that shows up at the right time is often treated as a lucky fluke. Alice Sebold wrote about a missing and murdered girl in The Lovely Bones, and the book's resounding success has been credited, in part, to the summer of 2002, when missing and murdered girls dominated news coverage. Yet careful newspaper readers know such crimes did not spike last year; quite the opposite. Isn't it possible that good novelists sometimes anticipate our obsessions?

Kathy Hepinstall's third novel, Prince of Lost Places, arrives in a world in which many parents are intent on creating risk-free environments for their children. Yet trying to keep your children safe, Hepinstall makes clear, will drive you mad. It's an impossible proposition filled with paradoxical choices, such as driving rollover-prone SUVs so you won't get smashed by someone else's rollover-prone SUV, or washing with antibacterial soap even if it means exposure to meaner, fiercer germs.

Martha Warden (note the surname), the mother in Prince of Lost Places, has hit upon a particularly odd way to protect her 6-year-old son. Unhinged by a tragedy in their Ohio hometown, she has taken the boy, Duncan, to the Big Bend section of Texas, torching the family station wagon along the way. The plan is to live, presumably forever, in a cave along the Rio Grande. Her list of supplies is quirkily inadequate, comprising, in part, "a Coleman stove, a broken railroad watch, two old Hollofil sleeping bags, a hunting knife, flashlights, carbide lanterns, canned beets, Mars bars, John Denver music, matches, and Spam." There is scant evidence that Martha could make it past the first tribal council on "Survivor," much less live in the wilderness forever.

Martha's husband, David, believes she is insane and hires a private detective to find her and bring her back. The reader cannot help feeling that the husband is on to something, even though Martha has the advantage of telling most of the story. Her new home is filled with new dangers -- poisonous snakes, falling rocks, flash floods. But the detective begins falling in love with Martha even before he finds her. Once he enters her secret world, he has no desire to leave.

Detective fiction is filled with variations on this story, and hard-boiled writers such as James M. Cain and James Crumley could have delivered a superb version of a similar tale. Hepinstall, however, manipulates this familiar material with a sly respect for the form's possibilities -- and its limitations. The inevitable seduction scene is filled with ambivalence. She gives the story to the hunted, not the hunter, glossing over the details of the detective's search. After all, how difficult would it be to find a suburban housewife who fled in the family station wagon?

Yet when David shows up, he is allowed to tell in touching detail how he tracked down his wife, using the knowledge gleaned from a once-tender relationship. There's nothing fancy or technologically adept in David's search. He finds Martha because he loves her. But he can no longer love her on her terms, which is why Martha fled in the first place.

What happened back in Ohio to make Martha seek such an extreme solution? Hepinstall parcels out the story in tantalizing bits and pieces -- a child has died, it happened at the local elementary school, the agent of the child's death was an ordinary person, the kind our eyes slide past every day. Even this killer's intentions are ambiguous, judging from the note left behind: "If I could, I would have taken every child with me. I have no regrets." Martha could have written the same note.

Hepinstall has a dreamy, poetic voice, well-suited to Martha and her cave, where blind fish swim in a crystal-clear lake and stalagmites form vivid tableaux in the candlelight. Her writing is so vibrant that one jumps at the stray sentence that falls short of her usual standards. "My mind was racing in crazy circles," Martha says, when David finally arrives, and she realizes the detective was in her husband's employ.

Prince of Lost Places also has a gasp-worthy surprise. After years of reading crime novels, I am seldom caught off-guard by any plot point, yet Hepinstall lulled me into a place where I was vulnerable. I don't want to oversell the effect of this small shock, but the revelation is the sort that forces one to go back and re-read, discovering new meanings throughout.

At times, Hepinstall's book evokes a very different novel, John Irving's sprawling The World According to Garp. T.S. Garp, like Martha, had a son named Duncan and was so obsessed with the boy's safety that he had a second child to relieve the stress his paranoia might have otherwise caused Duncan. Garp still ended up with only one child. There are no safe places in this world, and there's nothing a parent can do about it. And that knowledge, too, can drive you mad. *

Laura Lippman is an award-winning mystery novelist who lives in Baltimore.