(Pegasus )

A man walks into a bar. This is not a joke, but the moment that kicks off Stephen Amidon’s thriller “The Real Justine.”

The bar is at a Chinese restaurant in the upstate New York town of Annville, where the man, Michael Coolidge, lives. Michael, who’s 42, just broke up with the girlfriend who came along after his divorce. He’s been fired from his job at a charity foundation. He’s been drinking steadily, and he has problems with his 14-year-old son. The days now, after the Christmas holidays, are “arguably the worst of his life.”

And then he eyes a “very beautiful woman.” They talk. Soon, they go to his home. That night, and for the rest of the week, Michael and the woman, the eponymous Justine — “gloriously naked, impossibly lovely” — make passionate love. Michael is besotted: “He had never wanted anyone so much.” And then she disappears, leaving behind a cryptic note: “I don’t think you’d like me very much if you knew the truth about me and the world I live in.”

Nine months later, Michael spots Justine entangled in a tense, potentially violent confrontation with a man who has broad shoulders, a ratty ponytail and a tattoo of a snake coiling around his neck. “His eyes,” Michael observes, “were disease-yellow. His breath was feverish; he smelled of chemicals and rot.” The stranger is obviously not to be messed with, but fearing for Justine’s safety, Michael intervenes. Justine warns him off, and she and the stranger jump into a Mercedes and drive away.

Later she texts Michael: “I might be needing your help.” The man with the snake tattoo turns up in a motel, dead from a drug overdose. Was Justine involved in the man’s death? Is she in danger? Michael’s personal turmoil and his passion for Justine morph into an obsessive quest to find her and to know that she is safe: “He did not want to hear a voice of reason. He was moving beyond reason now, drawn by something he could not control.”

Novelist Stephen Amidon. (Courtesy of Stephen Amidon)

The haunted search for a missing, mysterious lover is a well-worn trope in thrillers, but to Amidon’s credit, he sustains what actors call “the illusion of the first time” — the impression that you’re saying for the first time a line you’ve said a hundred times. With “The Real Justine,” we read as if we haven’t read this sort of thing many times before.

One way Amidon enlivens his plot is by throwing some unsettling characters in Michael’s way, all of them warning him off Justine’s trail. A Russian gallery owner, said to be Justine’s Rasputin, warns him to “head back upstate with your photos and your memories,” and a woman who was in love with Justine tells him that some horrible things happened to Justine “when she was younger.” And, in a series of suspenseful scenes involving a hospital for drug addicts, there are a consulting doctor and the hospital’s menacing lawyer. A scene at the latter’s compound, to which Michael gains entry by jumping a high fence, is tense and unsettling.

Many readers will find it refreshing that the novel’s pace and suspense result not so much from physical violence, of which there is little, but from these well-drawn characters’ uncertain feelings and motives. Michael, like the reader, remains off guard, never sure who is trustworthy.

As well as “The Real Justine” works, one can’t help feeling it could work even better. Amidon’s prose is sometimes cringe-inducing (“Longing coursed through his veins”) and sometimes keen (“She found herself lying next to a grumpy old man with a silly accent and wires of gray hair sticking from his chest, like some busted robot.”). The author’s descriptions, while clear and effective, are not as atmospheric as they could be, especially for a tale with so many classic noir themes.

And as a model noir couple — the obsessed male, the elusive and mysterious female — Michael and Justine come up short. They’re plausible but not mesmerizing, not in the way that prototypes such as Scottie Ferguson and Madeleine Elster are in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” While reading Michael and Justine’s scenes, I felt a strong impulse to ask for more.

Gerald Bartell is a freelance reviewer and travel writer.


By Stephen Amidon

Pegasus. 242 pp. $24.95