Patterson gives us a new serial killer

January 02, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

This is James Patterson's first book since his breakthrough thriller of 1993, "Along Came a Spider," and in it the author brings back Washington homicide detective Alex Cross. In "Spider," Cross, a streetwise policeman who also happened to have a doctorate in abnormal psychology from Johns Hopkins University, helped solve a vexing serial-murder case that involved not only the affluent Georgetown area but also his own Southeast Washington neighborhood.

In "Kiss the Girls," Cross confronts another serial killer -- or is it two? For someone called Casanova is murdering young women in the Southeast, and on the West Coast a killer named the Gentleman Caller is operating. Could this killer be so calculating, so ambitious as to fly from coast to coast? Or, if there are two killers, do they know each other? Are they in league?

Cross becomes involved in the case when his beloved niece Naomi, a law student at Duke University, is among several women missing from the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. All are extremely beautiful, intelligent, accomplished. Police think that all the women kidnapped have not been killed -- that some have been held as part of a harem by the maniacal Casanova.

Mr. Patterson is a skillful plotter, and in this, his sixth novel, he has constructed an elaborate thriller full of twists and false starts. The idea of a bi-coastal serial killer is absolutely chilling: If nonstop flights to the coast are a boon to business travelers, then they likewise can make the job of a killer that much easier. Especially if Casanova and the Gentleman Caller -- are they one and the same? -- are as formidable and evil as they are depicted.

And Alex Cross continues to be a compelling protagonist, both wise to the ways of the world and still, somehow, tender and full of love for his two children. He's a man who sees death not only in his line of work but as he walks home. His neighbors are junkies, their children hollow and scarred. Early on, he rushes an 11-year-old boy he has befriended to the hospital; it seems that the boy, whose parents run a crack house in the projects, has attempted suicide. Mr. Patterson writes:

I outpaced gypsy cabs, shouting at everybody to get out of my way. I passed ghost store after ghost store boarded up with dark, rotting plywood that was scrawled with graffiti.

I ran over broken glass and rubble, Irish Rose bottles, and occasional dismal patches of weeds and loose dirt. This was our neighborhood, our share in The Dream, our capital.

Cross' position as a black homicide detective in a decaying nation's capital was one of the underpinnings of "Along Came a Spider" -- we felt his rage and frustration at watching a generation of young people kill itself off. A good mystery needs both a strong lead character and an evocative sense of place, and "Along Came a Spider" provided both.

But although Mr. Patterson continues to develop Cross as a character in "Kiss the Girls," he simply doesn't make the Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina as interesting as Washington. You don't feel the place; it's just another setting with a lot of students and hospitals.

Then there is the question of yet another thriller about a serial killer. Although "Kiss the Girls" is by no means a generic serial-killer mystery, it's nonetheless another in a long line of such books.

Is there really much more we want to read about young women being stalked by sickos? In a sense, all books of this nature are merely following Thomas Harris' superb "Silence of the Lambs." Even with such skilled practitioners as Mr. Patterson and Patricia Cornwell, I'm getting the feeling that serial-killer mysteries are going the way of Cold War thrillers. They've been played out.

Still, Mr. Patterson continues to put a lot into his works, and into his Alex Cross mysteries in particular. You can question whether the author, being white, can write convincingly about a black protagonist and black society. Mr. Patterson does try to make Cross a complex, sympathetic character, though, and I anticipate his development further. Perhaps different villains would help.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.


Title: "Kiss the Girls"

Author: James Patterson

Publisher: Little, Brown

Length, price: 464 pages, $22.95

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