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'Panic' lets you rest easy in your easy chair

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``Panic'' by Jeff Abbott; Dutton ($23.95)


With all the strangulations, shootings and maimings, it's weird to think of thrillers as the literary equivalent of comfort food. But that's what they are.

A seemingly average guy or gal suddenly gets caught in a web of violence and must figure out how to escape and outwit professional killers or nefarious tycoons. And when the seemingly average Joe or Jo wins, it makes us feel good, as if we, too, might defuse an anti-tank bomb or escape a mad plot to steal our DNA.

Jeff Abbott's new Texas-based thriller, ``Panic,'' follows this formula, right down to the inevitable laptop-hacking scene. It's not a literary feast, subtly flavored with fresh herbs or topped with a creamy sauce. It's a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The central character is Evan Casher, a Houston documentary filmmaker who gets a mysterious call from his mother, telling him to come home quickly to Austin. When Evan arrives, he finds his mother strangled in the kitchen. But before he has a chance to call the police, two killers who are lurking in the home attack Evan.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse tale involving multiple kidnappings, murders, double-crosses, twists and the ever-popular CIA.

To make matters worse, it appears that Evan's girlfriend has close ties to the killers. Or is she actually a double agent? And his parents don't appear to be as saintly as he thought, either.

Abbott, who lives in Austin, Texas, crafts a compulsive tale, with our hero taking us on a thrilling chase through the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, with gunfire blazing and babies in jeopardy. And before the story ends, Abbott also puts Evan in the middle of a London bombing while his girlfriend stands by in horror.

Most thriller fans will enjoy ``Panic,'' which could easily be translated into a summer popcorn movie, with Matt Damon as Evan. But readers who want more substance will long for character development and fuller explanations about motivations.

The twists and turns are fine. But the best thrillers, like those of John Le Carre or Graham Greene, go beyond tight plotting and reveal the vulnerability of heroes. After a while, ``Panic's'' Evan resembles not so much an everyman as a superman.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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