January 26, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Monty Brogan is going to prison in 24 hours. Caught hiding drugs in his Manhattan apartment, he’s been sentenced to seven years. David Benioff’s headlong suspense novel, The 25th Hour (Carroll & Graf, $24), is a deceptively simple chronicle of his final day of freedom. Monty isn’t a career criminal — he’s just a rueful guy who succumbed to an easy way to make money. His friends throw a farewell party at a chic club, a scene that includes a terrifically tense yet beautifully black-humored confrontation with a drug lord.

Working in a novelistic form of ”real time,” Benioff shows a knack for critiquing his genre while revitalizing its clichés. Toward the end, Monty describes his situation — the essential situation of thousands of thrillers: ” … a confusion of menace, of treachery, all for such petty stakes. A fool’s drama played by dim thugs reciting the same lines endless generations of dim thugs recited before.” In The 25th Hour, the dimness is portrayed with bright, knowing intelligence, and instead of yielding mere irony, the author, in his first novel, achieves both pathos and excitement. A-

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