Tom De Haven
September 06, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

If there were a fraction as many serial killers in real life as there are in fiction, few of us would ever walk the streets alone. Hitchcock’s Psycho, or maybe it was Lawrence Sanders’ The First Deadly Sin, spawned a genre that continues to sell movie tickets and novels, but most of the recent entries have felt shopworn. And if Jack and Jill can be considered any bellwether, the serial-killer industry is fast degenerating into loony self-parody. The new bogeyman thriller by James Patterson (Along Came a Spider) once again stars Dr. Alex Cross, psychologist and deputy chief of detectives. As a policeman, Cross possesses the nuanced realism of Sam Catchem, and as a shrink — well, he doesn’t analyze human behavior as though he’s had much clinical training.

In Washington, D.C., in the same week, two murder sprees begin — one perpetrated by a pair of politically motivated lovers, the other by a whacked-out teenager who has neglected to take his mood-disorder medicine. The casualties are Beltway big shots and poor black schoolchildren, respectively. Not an unpromising premise. It’s the sloppy way Patterson works it out that makes his book such a misbegotten howl.

Chapters are clotted with stiff dialogue and strewn with hackneyed plot twists. Brand names masquerade as description and single-ply cardboard substitutes for characterization. The cliched derring-do (a foot chase, a car chase, a hostage rescue) is juicelessly dramatized. It used to be that such efforts never got farther than a writer’s desk drawer; these days, they not only get published but come with million-dollar advertising campaigns. Go figure. F

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