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EXPECT UNEASY NIGHTS IN WAKE OF 'DEAD SLEEP'

Dead Sleep
By Greg Iles
Putnam
372 pages; $19.95

...

Jordan Glass knows what death looks like in a frame.

Her career as a war photographer has landed her in the middle of massacres, cameras at the ready, willing as any of the men she competed against to do whatever it took to capture the telling image and get out alive. For her efforts they sent her all over the world she wanted to see as a poor Mississippi girl. She even won the Pulitzer Prize, just like her daddy did, only his came posthumously after he was reported missing along the Cambodian border.

The media world at her feet, she can write her own ticket. But after decades of holding the carnage at bay through her lens, the pain has crept up the optic nerve to her mind. Even trying to lose herself in the Far East, she can't outrun what she's seen.

When she sees a painting in a Hong Kong gallery, she understands why the Chinese men blanch at the sight of her. The woman in the painting is nude. She is dead. And she is Glass.

In the year since her twin sister, Jane, disappeared in New Orleans, Glass, her sister's family and the FBI have given up finding her alive. A painting of her dead was not good news. But the suggestion that answers exist, somewhere, is enough to launch Glass on the mission she'd been waiting for.

It's a compelling start to "Dead Sleep," a strobe-lit thriller of the first order from Greg Iles, the author of "24 Hours."

The honesty of Iles' characters makes them easy to like. Glass is tough, smart and flawed enough to be likable. Iles posits Glass as a woman who really has seen it all and is something the worse for wear. Her father disappeared in the Asian jungle decades ago, and now her sister is gone too, lending her search a ragged edge of energy that suits a woman used to doing her best work under extreme pressure.

Her discovery leads the FBI to link the "Sleeping Women" series to the disappearance of a series of women from the streets of New Orleans. Once the hunt for the painter turns to the Big Easy, Glass meets veteran FBI agent John Kaiser. A Vietnam vet who's seen his share of death himself, Kaiser and Glass share the shock of recognition.

The hunt for answers leads to the paintings' dealer, to a fugitive expatriate Frenchman in a Caribbean hideaway and back to New Orleans. Iles keeps the story clicking like a well-oiled shutter, with enough dead ends to provide effective plot camouflage.

Not every artist likes the sweat of detail work, but Iles is one for the small stuff. Whether it's the arcana of aerial thermal-imaging photography or the ins and outs of insulin intoxication, he provides enough to convince the reader, but not enough for anyone to accuse him of copping style points from Tom Clancy.

Even the bit players have a backstory. Since this is a serial-killer thriller, the bad guy's history is most important, and Iles has done enough to make the antagonist human as well. No "you're not going to believe this, but" resolutions with all the integrity of meteor strikes. There is even a flash-frozen frame late in the book, when the hunted artist's hand finally becomes clear, that by itself is worth shooting off the whole roll.

Not that it's without its faults, either. "Dead Sleep" will keep your head off your pillow for longer than is, strictly speaking, healthy. Blinking blearily over your coffee in the morning, its title will seem like wishful thinking.

Andrew Z. Galarneau is a reporter in The News' Niagara Bureau.