To make the cut as a fictional sleuth today, you don't really need a personality, just a trademark gimmick: You're a gourmet cook; you love cats; you're claustrophobic; or, like Michael Bennett, the hero of James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge's Step on a Crack, you're raising 10 kids in Manhattan on a cop's salary.
Ludicrous, of course, but who expects realism from a breezy throwaway thriller like this one? The first in a projected series, the novel opens as Michael's saintly wife, Maeve (''She took on cancer the way an outclassed Jake LaMotta took on Sugar Ray Robinson in the fifties, with an epic ferocity not to be believed''), lies dying in the hospital. Between putting in time at poor Maeve's bedside and shepherding their flock through the city streets a spectacle that ''tugs at the coiled-steel heartstrings of the Big Apple's residents'' this single dad and widower-to-be somehow has ample time and emotional energy to face down the city's diabolical new evildoer: the Neat Man.
Killers need trademark gimmicks too, and the Neat Man's consist of compulsively dabbing his hands with Wetnaps as he executes his admirably byzantine scheme. After dispatching the allergic former First Lady of the United States with some peanut oil drizzled on her foie gras, he gets down to his true business: hijacking her A-list funeral. When the earthy talk-show host, the trampy pop singer, the OxyContin-addicted fashionista, and dozens of the late First Lady's millionaire pals have settled into the pews of New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral, the doors slam shut. As one of the Neat Man's apprentices says, ''It's time to put the fun back into funeral.''
Sadly, he never quite gets around to it. Patterson and his new coauthor have coined some nasty, cineplex-ready lines (''I'll make things so bad, Prada will be coming out with a body bag this season''), but the static standoff plot bears an uncanny resemblance to Spike Lee's Inside Man, without the star wattage to light it up. And then there are the shameless allusions to United 93 (or is it United 93?) as a handful of stout-hearted hostages move on their captors. It's right there on the page, appropriated to juice up this cheap thriller: ''Let's roll.''
Michael, unfortunately, never rolls; throughout most of the catastrophe, he observes, negotiates, narrates, and shuttles between the drama at the cathedral, the unearned pathos in the cancer ward, and his absurd household, a protagonist so lacking in cunning and originality that even 10 more children couldn't set him apart from the generic-detective pack. C+