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Lost Girls, by Andrew Pyper. Delacorte Press. 385 pp, $23.95.

IT'S A BEACH read, a sun-chiller: a damp, rain-soaked, frosty story set in the god-forsaken Ontario north, complete with a frigid, dripping La Llorona and a predatory English teacher. You don't have to think, and you'll get just one more reason to hate lawyers.

Lost Girls is Canadian Andrew Pyper's first novel. An English master's with a law degree, he's produced a crisply-written, character-driven work with psychological and legal components.

Preceded with a prologue that sets the stage for a supernatural element (a strong swimmer who drowns in a lake despite efforts that should have worked to save her), it opens with a hot-shot young criminal defense attorney comfortable with convenient perjuries being assigned his first murder case. His client is a high school English teacher in a small lake community north of Toronto. He's charged with the murder of two of his students-- 14-year-old girls in his literary club. Acquittal should prove a piece o'cake for the defense counsel: No bodies have been recovered and evidence is sketchy and circumstantial.

When the attorney packs up to head north, along with his $250 shoes, Milan-made suits and hand-painted silk ties, he includes additional baggage: a taste for young strippers, a murky past, fairly permanent cases of insomnia and erectile dysfunction and the expectation he'll ingest his full thermos of powered coca leaf.

That extra baggage, the seeming suicidal inability of the teacher to either explain or defend himself, and the persistent local myth of the "lady" who drowned in full view of the town's elders after they'd taken her children from her, collude to complicate this "piece of cake."

Pyper spins a deliberate and engaging tale in Lost Girls; his writing is serviceable and doesn't call attention to itself; his central character particularly is well fleshed out (he is a guy you like to not like, but sympathies grow), and the reader's willing to go along with the spectral presumption. All in all, it offers a cool way to pass a hot afternoon.

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