What is the crucial moment in a novel devoted to the unraveling of a conspiracy -- the moment that sucks the reader in and holds him to the finish? Doesn't it come at the point when the protagonist's last remaining ties to normality are snapped, when the forces of irrationality apparently have taken over, when no one else can be trusted and when the only safety lies in offensive action?

This is the classic pattern, whether the hero has become involved by accident (for example Richard Hannay in John Buchan's "The Thirty-Nine Steps"), or whether, as in Peter Abrahams' "The Fury of Rachel Monette," the danger seems to swirl around one person by intent. Certainly for Rachel Monette the world is a tranquil, secure, even pleasant place, until the snowy afternoon she arrives home from work for lunch and finds her husband dying of a stab wound and her young son missing from his school.

The reader, however, alerted by an overeager flap-copy writer, is able to take these grim occurrences in stride -- though Rachel, of course, cannot. For a while the mood continues uneasy -- Rachel in shock, the local cops out of their depth, the FBI not getting anywhere -- until further violence erupts in a hideous chain of events, finally grabbing the reader by the collar. eFor Rachel and for those following her journey, inspired by the "fury" of the title, the game is on. The veil of normality has been lifted; the lunge into solitary (and justifiable) paranoia is taken. Next stop: Casablanca.

What has triggered the mayhem and Rachel's subsequent purchase of a ticket to North Africa is her discovery of a mysterious document (that old standby) in a safety-deposit box belonging to Dan Monette and unknown to her until the bank mentions it after his death. The fact that her husband had secrets from her is yet another shove in the direction of what will be a tortuous pursuit and flight; the letter to his father found along with the strange fragment is equally puzzling, for Dan, French by birth, had never been particularly close to the elder Monette. "The Dan she had known was not precisely congruent with the Dan that was. The thought still made her uneasy, but it also awakened her curiosity."

The piece of paper around which such evil gathers is a set of orders, commanding a Lt. Hans Kopple of the German infantry to transfer himself and three men to a camp in the Sahara. Dated 1942, these are secret orders, or so the say. But Rachel, convinced that the men involved are no longer alive, is equally sure "that those orders, written before she was born, had somehow not died with them."

So Rachel, a woman possessed by curiosity and driven by the loss of her husband and the disappearance of her child, begins literally to kick up the sand in the desert, hoping it will yield the secrets of past and of present. Now not every recent widow, even the mother of a kidnaped boy, is going to take off on what might very well turn out to be a wild-Nazi chase, but the heroines of thrillers are a different breed.

Thus, as intelligent, charming, resourceful, brave and determined as Rachel is, it's not surprising that she has some pretty rocky, or sandy, times before she does manage to penetrate the final layer of deception. Nor will it cause any raised eyebrows to hear that, despite the cleverness with which Abrahams zigs and zags, tying up loose ends only to unknot others, there is ultimately a familiar pattern that emerges. One step forward, two back, three sideways: the maze spreads out to include Israel and France, as well as Morocco. Geography, though, is not what it's all about.

No, the "fury" of Rachel Monette is more accurately the curiosity of Rachel Monette; her quest seems more an intellectual exercise than a maternal odyssey to recover a child. Yet until the stale air of predictability and the sudden gusts of improbablility blow in, Abrahams has juggled his plot elements in just the right manner to keep our attention diverted from the effort involved. "The Fury of Rachel Monette" is fun and engrossing, but then drafts get to it, the strain starts to show, and too many balls drop to the ground at once.

There's a secondary plot of parallel significance that has to do with a maverick member of the Knesset. There's also some vey vivid writing ("rachel pictured herself sitting in a padded chair bolted to a hunk of metal speeding over the cold sea. She hated flying.") which gives Abrahams a large edge over others who have recently debuted with thrillers. In many ways it doesn't matter that there's nothing new under the sun; part of the joy of escape literature lies in its new combinations of things we've liked before, especialy if done with talent.