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Justin Cartwright. Random House (NY), $17.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57512-4

Provocative and absorbing, British writer Cartwright's (Freedom for the Wolves) third novel titillates the reader's sensibilities on several levels, both as a suspenseful adventure story whose layers of mystery are slowly peeled away, and as a psychological journey into the heart of Africa. The narrator, an African of Boer ancestry, was a child living in the U.S when his gadfly journalist father disappeared in 1959. In his eagerness to ``give himself a more textured surface,'' the father had adopted the nom de plume of Hollywood film director Lance Curtiz. In company with his formidable colleague and mentor, Mrs. de Luth, ``a terrifying old bird'' with an ``unblinking Lutheran gaze,'' the ever optimistic Curtiz had set off on a National Geographic -sponsored expedition to Banguniland. It was reported that he perished there in a river accident, but lingering questions persist about his disappearance. Now, 35 years later, his son is in Banguniland where nearly everyone he encounters seems prepared to offer startling information about his father's fate.. The story segues between the narrator's private life, replete with sexual conflicts, and the spirit-filled culture of old Africa; and before we discover Curtiz's fate, we see present-day Banguniland after Western do-gooders have departed. Though paying homage to Conrad and Greene, this ironically humorous, well paced tale is wickedly of the moment. (May)