SEARCH THE SHADOWS

By Barbara Michaels

Atheneum. 358 pp. $17.95

Sometimes I think reading a "genre" book is a little like going to a bluegrass concert. You just know you're going to hear "Orange Blossom Special" at some point during the evening. When it comes, you're prepared; you know the tune. And always, it's what the musicians do with it that matters. If they don't transcend the inherent limitations of the form, the thing derails halfway through the first chorus.

"Search the Shadows" is of the "romantic suspense" genre. The sheet music reads this way: Young, smart, pretty heroine uncovers mystery; in process of solving mystery, young heroine meets eligible young men and encounters danger, preferably in spooky old house; in last chapter, mystery is solved, heroine falls into arms of the man she loves.

Author Barbara Michaels follows the form, but manages for the most part to transcend the formula. The story is seen through the eyes of young and pretty Haskell Maloney, who is as clever and cool as all of us wanted to be at age 22. Imagine Nancy Drew in grad school. The mystery she uncovers involves her long-dead mother and father. In taking her prenuptial blood test she discovers that she carries the Tay-Sachs gene, which chiefly is carried by Eastern European Jews. Since neither of her parents was Jewish, she begins to doubt that her real father was in fact the late Kevin Maloney. And since he was killed in Vietnam, and her mother was killed in a mysterious car crash when Haskell was an infant, the answer lies buried with them. So our heroine decides to track down her biological father.

The first order of business is to postpone her wedding to Jon, who is understandly upset. But he's also maddeningly understanding. Perceptive romance novel readers will quickly see that he's too ordinary to be the man of her dreams. But he's persistent, and he follows Haskell to the University of Chicago, where she hopes to find her father among her mother's old college friends. Haskell's mother, you see, was a standout student of Egyptology there, and many of her old colleagues from those days are still teaching.

In Chicago we are introduced to a couple of roguish males, each a potential MOHD (Man of Her Dreams). There's Dave Wertheim, once a student with Haskell's mother, now a professor at the Oriental Institute. And there's young Carl Townsend, with whom Haskell finds work at the Institute. Haskell is attracted to Dave, but fears he might actually be her father. Carl, on the other hand, is flirtatious and fun -- a real possibility.

The final player in author Michaels' game of Clue is the spooky old Nazarian estate, a combination mansion and museum. It's filled from cellar to attic with dusty Egyptian artifacts, and it's inhabited by the equally spooky Victor Nazarian, the ancient -- and dying -- owner of the Nazarian Collection. Haskell comes to live in a guest cabin on the estate while working on the collection. She's protected from the decaying neighborhood outside by barbed fences and guards, but she's also a virtual prisoner whose comings and goings are easily observed. It soon becomes obvious that someone is not pleased with her presence and suspects the real reason for her appearance in Chicago.

Michaels makes it all plausible somehow, probably due in no small measure to her own days as a student at the Institute. There are strong characterizations, especially of the university types. She captures the kind of insular provincialism that too often infects the inhabitants of academe. Someone doesn't want Haskell to discover who her father was, and we can easily believe that it might be one of these slightly skewed characters.

"Search the Shadows" is a fast, engaging read, perfect for a winter's night by the fire. You may have heard the tune before, but Barbara Michaels plays it with enough pizazz that you won't notice until it's over.

The reviewer is editor of Pittsburgh magazine and coauthor of "Aquarius Revisited: Seven Who Created the Sixties Counterculture That Changed America."