THIS NOVEL starts, because of voice and structure, with what seems sure-fire narrative pull. Newsman Malcolm Anderson tells the tale with no hype--in fact, with a kind of weariness. And what he says is, "I did not realize then, at the beginning, that it would become the biggest story of my life. Nor did I have any prerecognition, any reporter's sixth-sense suspicion, that I would be drawn into the story. . . ." So, of course, we're going to stick around to hear.

Trouble is, the plot is stale. Anderson covers the murder of a young girl, writes it up, and the next thing we know, the killer is on the phone, telling him all. The killer's monologues go on for pages, so it's scarcely believable that none lasts long enough for the police to trace.

Why do we read on? Partly because the killer says that more murders are in store. When they come, they are gory, described with a journalist's eye. The murderer's stated motive--that he is a Vietnam vet bringing to the populace what he's been forced to endure--is also good copy. But mostly, we keep reading because we're interested in the effect that contact with the killer has on Anderson.

There's media attention, sure. And conflict with Anderson's girlfriend, Christine. Less predictably, there's the element of which Anderson's father warns: "Don't get too dependent on this guy."

These aspects--particularly the last--might have carried the book. Unfortunately--and God knows why--the author goes out of his way to remind us that we've read it or seen it on TV before. We get the out-and-out threat to Christine, with Anderson chasing to the rescue. And worse, Anderson walking into what every reader in the world will spot as a set-up.

These two incidents are unforgivable, substituting as they do the pull of formula for the much stronger devices the author earlier had going.