The Kill Clause, Gregg Hurwitz's fourth novel, is all about navigating those treacherous ethical gray areas: to use a .357 or to rely on a simple, pelvis-crushing groin punch? That is the question.
His publisher, William Morrow, clearly has loftier quandaries -- and higher sales expectations -- in mind. They've dubbed him their ''Crichton/Grisham heir apparent'' (suggesting the ominous introduction of ''issue-tainment'') and taken out a giant billboard to hype the book and captivate the gridlocked masses on L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard. Hurwitz clearly had serious issues to suss out when he invented Tim Rackley, a U.S. deputy marshal with de rigueur special-ops training. (Murky references to Croatia and Kandahar pepper the book.) Tim's an upright, honor-bound killing machine whose daughter is savagely murdered. This being the Caligulan L.A. of O.J. (not the new Winona-whuppin' version), the prosecutor fumbles the case and the killer walks. Rackley is then recruited to be the designated hitman for the Commission, a shadowy think tank of conscientious vigilantes. They target bad guys (alternately called ''mutts'' and ''pukes'') set free on technicalities. All seven Commission members must agree that the accused deserves death before an execution is carried out.
This, according to Hurwitz, is a morally ambiguous situation. (No, really: In an essay enclosed with the review copy, he calls the Commission ''an actual, viable, intelligent option that addresses the law and the role of violence in society.'') After all, these solons have to vote unanimously -- and there are seven of them! At this point, it should be abundantly clear that ''Clause'' is no philosophical treatise -- it's a closed loop of empty contrivance. Hurwitz simply tosses in a dash of meretricious cocktail-party intellect any time he wants to earn a little more cathartic bloodshed.
Who's doing the bleeding? Oh, the English language, mostly. With Hurwitz, public opinion becomes the ''boxcars composing the train wreck of public opinion.'' And speaking of train wrecks, what exactly is going on in the following description? ''Even in the dark, his eyes shone jarringly blue, the blue of newborns and summer skies and other things discordant and mawkish.'' Later, an officer sagely remarks, ''Life ain't a Spiegel catalog.'' Spiegel?
It goes on like that, page after turgid page. Hurwitz comes alive only when he's describing men locked in mortal struggle: The violence is so detailed, so mercilessly, excruciatingly storyboarded, it's almost erotic. Which seems appropriate for a character like Rackley, whose beloved pistols are described with far more lavish attention than his wife. Hurwitz's press release proudly states that he writes Jungian literary analyses in his spare time. Maybe he should try self-applying the Freudian variety.
''The Kill Clause'' is indeed a thriller with issues -- just maybe not the ones its author intended.