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Caught Up in the Thrill of the Hunt : THE PURIFICATION CEREMONY by Mark T. Sullivan; Avon Books; $24, 335 pages


It says "a novel of suspense" on the cover. But this is a fine, some might say, medical distinction (relating to blood pressure and oxygen intake while reading) understood only by the publisher and a handful of people in the movie business. "The Purification Ceremony" is a real, old-fashioned thriller (all bodily functions, and the ability to care for one's family to be suspended while reading) hence, "a novel of suspense."

And who reads thrillers, class? 1) People who want to learn how to kill you more creatively. 2) Seriously overworked people who need a jolt that coffee can no longer give them. 3) Media-fried people whose normal impulses and reactions to cruelty and gore have been defused. 4) People on the lam from Literature. (That last one hurts, doesn't it?)

There are few outstanding thrillers. Some of the best (and "The Purification Ceremony" is among them) have densely interwoven plots, with clues gently offered to the reader throughout; a lot of information is imparted (in this case about tracking and hunting); and the geography, the terrain, must be accurately and compellingly drawn (the stage setting in thrillers is almost as important as the characters). Finally, and I think most importantly, the characters in a thriller with any kind of shelf life must be fully drawn, dimensional and, like people you think you know well, unpredictable, able to surprise and change. I've come to believe this is just as important as the pyrotechnics of plot.

Mark Sullivan does all of this. "The Purification Ceremony" takes the reader into that dark part of the imagination where people kill and are killed using the oldest ritual known to man (closely followed by novel writing)--the hunt.

The hero (the word "heroine" doesn't sit well on this deer tracker, environmental software writer) is Diana (as in "Goddess of the Hunt") Jackman. She's part Micmac Indian, now in her mid-30s, mother of two children and separated. She was taught to hunt from the age of 5 by her surgeon father (one-half Micmac) and her white mother, a state senator and fisherman.

When the novel opens, she's paralyzed by memories of her mother's death, fighting the parts of her heritage that have been severely repressed for the 18 years of her education and suburban Boston adulthood). She has not found a way to forgive her father's Native American religious fanaticism; his strict adherence to codes of behavior, to rituals.

But she misses hunting and being in nature. Diana signs on to an expensive deer tracking expedition in British Columbia--three hunting buddies, a computer tycoon and his wife, an old hunter who remembers Diana's dead father, a suspicious and unethical journalist, the outfitter and his wife, two guides and a camp helper. For 10 days, the group is completely isolated on a 227,000-acre estate. They become live bait for a ritual killer who hunts the hunters, guts them, scalps them and marks them with feathers.

Diana's childhood skills (and some of her Uncle Mitchell's shamanic powers) are forced to return as she takes the lead in hunting the killer, opening doors in her consciousness that have been shut for decades.

Her childhood heightens the suspense of the present, putting the reader's own senses on the same painful level of alert: "It was a clear print of his bare hand. Seeing it, strangely, I could see him, checking his back trail, plotting his escape. My own right hand seemed to tingle. I turned to the stinging of snow robbing flesh of warmth. . . . I stared at my hand, not quite believing. . . . The sensation. . . . Marked, in no insignificant way, that my skills were returning to that level at which I'd abandoned them in my late teens."

"The Purification Ceremony" refers to many things in the book--the killer's motives, his ritualistic methods, coming to terms with death and, of course, rebirth. "I was the one surrounded by the black, shimmering halo," thinks Diana after a successful kill, "I was the negative. I was death, changer of shapes, feeler of Power."

So, while Diana does steal the show, she assumes many shapes, many identities, throughout the novel, as do the other characters, to varying degrees. All remain distinct in the reader's memory. I read this book in the countryside of Vermont. It has taken days to shake the suffocating feeling of being tracked down while I'm walking in the woods--every twig snap, every change of wind, every broken branch seems to contain more than it should.

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