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'Nightspinners' weaves a terrifying, beautiful web

THE NIGHTSPINNERS, by Lucretia Grindle, Random House, 288 pages, $23.95.

As they grow up, twin sisters Susannah and Marina are able to communicate in magical ways. By sending phrases, paragraphs, laughter "like flights of moths across the dark space of the room. Braiding the strands of our secret cocoon, we are nightspinning."

Although "The Nightspinners," a very well-written, literary thriller by Lucretia Grindle, begins with the theme of "nightspinning," the twins turn out to be quite different from each other in many ways — and for some time before Marina is murdered, they are estranged.

The author, a gifted writer, is suggesting that being close enough to look and sound alike often becomes unbearable to twins, enough to cause them to pursue entirely different paths. As a result, when the troubled, adult Marina makes several attempts to contact her sister, Susannah simply refuses to talk to her. Marina's murder then comes as not only a shock but puts a guilt-trip on Susannah.

Besides, she can't understand why anyone would want to murder her sister. Then, strange things start happening to Susannah. She receives flowers from an anonymous admirer, she hears a familiar childhood song emanating from the basement, and one morning, she awakens to find a lock of her own hair has been cut from her head and taped to her bathroom mirror. She becomes increasingly terrified. When she discovers that all the same things happened to her sister before she died, the meaning becomes clear.

Convincing the police that a stalker of twins is on the loose is, however, quite another matter. Left to her own resources, Susannah allows her mind to travel in different directions, including the possibility that Marina is "nightspinning" from beyond the grave. Eventually, Susannah must face the very real possibility that her stalker is someone she knows well. Thus, her trust for everyone in her life begins to crumble.

The groundwork for this story is laid carefully as suspense consistently builds. Unlike many other crime stories, the female protagonist is intentionally aggressive and assertive in finding the answers she so desperately seeks. The woman-as-victim stereotype is nowhere to be seen here, even when Susannah is in the throes of fear. She is an interesting, multi-faceted character who maintains the ability to think clearly in the most difficult situations.

Although the plot is strong and the story solid, it is the characters who fascinate. Grindle has written a genuinely different type of thriller. It is as fast-moving as it should be, it is believable in its context and the reader cares about the characters. The writing is also surprisingly facile, especially for a whodunit genre.

The story builds to a satisfying but entirely unexpected climax that fits together beautifully with the twins' checkered childhood. The theme unfolds in ingenious ways to reveal a killer who knows his prey.

Further, the author succeeds in asking meaningful questions that readers will ask about their own lives, i.e., do they intimately know their family and friends? Does every decision in life earn a discernible consequence?