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Cast of Shadows

By Kevin Guilfoile

Knopf, 336 pages, $25

Scientists have only recently been able to hatch animals from the cells of another, but cloning has worked as a reliable propulsive device for thrillers since at least the 1970s. "The Boys From Brazil" gave readers the chills with the prospect of 94 little Hitlers with a hankering for American homes.

Copy after copy followed. In three decades of clone-centric stories, few plots rose above the finger-wagging, "Frankenstein" level. The message: Mess with the essential forces of life, and you'll be sorry.

That doesn't mean it's not satisfying entertainment, of course, predictability being no barrier to commercial success. (The Frankenstein franchise had legs Hollywood would kill for today, though everyone knew that after the lightning started flashing, some horrible wrong was due.)

"Cast of Shadows," by first-time novelist Kevin Guilfoile, has its own rewards, as it revs up the clone story and tears off in unexpected directions.

The story is set in a near future, where human cloning has been approved in the United States, though only of dead people. Top clone doc Davis Moore finds his world blown apart when his only child, 17-year-old Anna Kat, is found dead at the Gap store where she worked. The police say she has been raped and murdered, and they have no witnesses. The doctor's in tough shape already, having been badly wounded by an anti-cloning sniper the previous year.

As the second anniversary of Anna Kat's killing approaches, with no new leads, the detectives call Moore and tell him he can pick up his daughter's effects. As fate would have it, the evidence parcels also happen to contain the sperm sample recovered from his daughter's corpse.

If you give apples to a baker, you get pie. If you give sperm to a clone doctor who wants nothing more than to see the face of his daughter's killer, what do you get? In Guilfoile's world, you get Justin Finn, nine pounds six ounces, the offspring of a killer rapist and one Martha Finn, the unsuspecting mother. Dr. Moore pays close attention to the child's development, trying to calculate how long it will take the young lad's face to mature into a clue.

The deeper question in "Cast of Shadows" is what it will take to give Moore the relief, the peace of mind, he so desperately craves. Exploring this question with a fully dimensional character like Dr. Moore is one of numerous elements that elevates the book above the average schlock.

Moore's marriage falls apart, but his search for the murderer never wavers. He hires private investigators to snap long-lens pictures of Justin, his Exhibit A in a case against an unknown perpetrator. Moore fiddles with artificially aging the photographs with software, and takes to the Internet to spread the word that he's looking for matches.

Despite its satisfying depth, the story eventually piles on enough layers to make following the story difficult. Justin Finn, the rapist spawn, confronts Moore as a teenager and the doctor tells the teen the truth, enlisting him in the search for the killer whose genes he carries.

A massive online game, a digital clone of the city they live in, becomes another front in their search as a suspect revels in simulated homicide. An ambitious newspaper reporter and an ongoing series of serial killings, sprawl into the story as well, crisscrossing boundaries between simulated reality and the flesh-and-blood drama.

While "Cast of Shadows" will probably makes some readers wish for a scorecard to keep track of comings and goings, the sense of unease it leaves is well earned. For once, the clone question isn't narrowly focused on technology, or genetic ramifications. Guilfoile seems more interested in what the promise of technology does to people, to the dreams and nightmares they make central to their lives. If cloning's promises brought you to commit previously unthinkable acts, has it not changed who you are? What does it mean if, in the end, the search to create an exact copy renders the seeker unrecognizeable?

News reporter Andrew Z. Galarneau frequently reviews thrillers.