4th Estate £10stg

Ever hear the story about the two old friends who run into each other after years apart? Pleasantries are exchanged and one asks the other what he's doing with his life. "I'm writing a novel," he says loftily. "Yeah," smiles his inquisitor, "neither am I". It's a joke, which would make Cal Cunningham, the 'hero' in John Colapinto's second book, laugh and cry at the same time.

Cunningham is an English graduate whose dreams of a literary career have taken him to the lofty heights of shelf stacker in a Manhattan bookstore. With the worse case of writer's block imaginable, he spends his free time not at his desk but in bars, picking up countless women and bringing them back to the shoebox apartment he shares with nerdy law student Stewart.

The relationship between the two men is at best businesslike - until Stewart starts to take an interest in Cal's conquests. Cal puts it down to the social misfit living vicariously through him, until he discovers that Stewart has secretly written a book – and a very good one – based entirely on Cal's after dark exploits. And when Stewart dies in a tragic accident, Cal begins to wonder if fame is waiting for him in the filing cabinet in the next room...

For anyone who has ever thought or dreamed about having their name on a shelf, Colapinto's book is a devilish treat. He takes the time-honoured premise of assumed identity and distils it into humour of the blackest kind, as Cal finds himself at loggerheads with Stewart even after his death. Did Cal write the book? No. Did Stewart rip off Cal's ideas? Yes - and the joy is in Cal's attempts to reconcile his course of action and its outcome in his own mind.

As he tries to enjoy his success, Cal discovers that a former one night stand knows he's ripped Stuart off, forcing him to do something he's only read about: plan the perfect murder. To tell you what happens in between would only spoil to surprise, suffice to say that the rights have been bought by a Hollywood Studio and future audiences will smirk and shudder just as much as you.

In terms of tone, pace and clarity, Colapinto is superb. His book flows so beautifully that you wonder whether it was written in one sitting, and when three quarter ways through he switches from past to present – and still keeps you hooked – your admiration is complete.

With a glut of thrillers every month involving every minute detail of autopsies and subpoenas, it's a pleasure to read someone who can frame a story in the everyday quest for recognition and still put you on the edge – laughing. You're never anything less than Colapinto's accomplice – and you'll stick with him all the way to the end.

Harry Guerin