By Roderick Anscombe

St. Martin's. 308 pp. $24.95

Craig Cavanaugh, the slick young villain whose manipulations lead to deadly consequences in The Interview Room, helpfully provides us with a theme that resonates throughout Roderick Anscombe's fiction. "An obsession is a repetitive thought that the thinker actively resists," says Craig. "He doesn't want to think it, but it keeps coming back."

For characters in Anscombe novels -- the male ones, at least -- those pesky thoughts almost always revolve around irresistible, unattainable women. Something about these gorgeous creatures inspires outsize yearning and effusive metaphorical conceits. Consider Natalie Davis, a Harvard graduate student and the uninterested object of Craig's desire. She struts through his fantasies like Cindy Crawford in a Diet Pepsi commercial: "It was like I was dying of thirst and Natalie was the most delicious drink you can imagine. . . . I started thinking about her all the time. . . . Everything she did, every turn of her head, every word she uttered, was a delight to me."

Dan Cody, the convicted murderer who narrates Shank, Anscombe's second book, is similarly fascinated with Carol, a prison nurse. "I was a volcano of fear and anger and love," Dan recalls. "I couldn't trust myself to go near her, and I couldn't stay away. Need is corrosive. It eats away all the discipline and resolve you must have to survive. I craved her as I've seen other inmates crave cocaine." For the bloodsucking 19th-century aristocrat in The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula, Anscombe's first and best novel, the hunger and thirst that other men speak of turn horrifyingly literal. He writes in his diary: "It is love, we monsters tell ourselves. We love too ardently, too anciently, too honestly. Too bestially. Love is the last great lie. There is little one can say of a love so consuming, so desirous of becoming one with the beloved, that the lover tears open her neck in order to drink the gushing flow, thick and hot, down to the last quiver of her dying heart."

Oh, the torment! The longing! The eruptions of purple prose! Why do our appetites drive us to such extremes? Anscombe's leading men ponder that riddle even as they go about stalking, slashing and slurping. Count Laszlo, for example, is as curious about his urges as he is consumed by them. A studious "scientist of the mind," he spends the first part of The Secret Life in Paris, a city that promises to provide "an opportunity for the insight of understanding or the blindness of passion, a realm where the possibilities of knowledge, ideas, love, or sin might be grasped."

Continuing his exploration of such perplexing stuff, Anscombe has moved the action to modern-day Boston. Unlike The Secret Life, which lacked a hero to counter Laszlo's mesmerizing villainy, The Interview Room has Paul Lucas, a dedicated scientist of the mind whose tangles with Cavanaugh set the plot in motion. Like Anscombe himself, Paul is a forensic psychiatrist who works at a maximum-security prison for the criminally insane. At 41, he is an experienced therapist who retains a healthy measure of idealism. "I believe my job is to yank people back from the brink," he says. "When I hit it right, it's the greatest altruistic buzz you can imagine. But to get it right, I first have to separate my true patients from the liars."

Making that distinction isn't simple, Paul allows, but he believes he has mastered the technique. The interview, which Paul describes as "combat by other means," is the primary tool of his trade. He handles his business in Interview Room One, "four walls of cinder block, painted pale blue, growing steadily hotter as the summer sun beat down on them, a window rusted closed, and a concrete floor."

"When I interview someone, I rely on hunches, twinges of feeling, gut responses to guide me to the emotional truth of the person," Paul says. The philosophically inclined might press him on the exact meaning of this "truth." He has a ready answer, confirmed by years of practice: "I see the truth as a patient, irresistible force in the universe that, in time, will permeate all lies, all self-deception, all denial."

That's what he believes when we first meet him, that is. His encounters with Craig Cavanaugh soon plant seeds of doubt that threaten to blossom into appalling contradictions. Craig, 22, is trim and handsome enough to grace the pages of a fashion magazine. He has "long black hair swept back around his ears, unblemished skin, a straight, delicate nose, full eyebrows, dazzling teeth." As if all that weren't enough, he's a Harvard senior and scion of a wealthy, powerful family.

There's that problem, however, with Natalie Davis. He regards her resistance as a test he must overcome. To prove himself worthy of her love, he has broken into her apartment, killed her cat, shadowed her as if laws against stalking were meant only for lesser mortals. And it's Paul's job to determine if Craig is insane.

Their sessions in the interview room convince Paul that Craig is "extraordinarily gifted in assessing other peoples' vulnerabilities and motivations." He apparently is also nearly superhuman. He can repeatedly and effortlessly climb three-story buildings, easily hack into private computer files and break into buildings without breaking a sweat or leaving a trace. Plus, don't forget, he's rich enough to slip a timely bribe or two into certain willing palms.

While struggling to make sense of Craig's behavior, Paul also begins to wonder if his wife is having an affair. Abby, an attractive social worker several years younger than Paul, has lately acquired new, unsettling habits -- along with new makeup, new lingerie and unexplained absences from work.

Craig somehow gets wind of Paul's personal difficulties and, through a series of sinister machinations, sets out to ruin his interviewer. Or so it seems to Paul. But Paul can't prove anything, and no one, including Abby, believes him. Even Paul admits that his years of training have brought him to a "pinnacle of finely tuned paranoia." Has the "combat"-hardened therapist finally met his match?

While his story proceeds to a predictable, violent climax, Anscombe reliably offers up his customary insights of understanding and illuminating takes on the blindness of passion. But he does so in language that occasionally slides into cliche, such as the "jigsaw puzzle" of recent events in Paul's life that lands "with every piece in place." Or into clumsiness: When Paul smells his wife's shampooed hair, he feels "enveloped in the intimate miasma that surrounds a person."

Paul assembles those puzzle pieces at a pace that seems far too gradual for an ostensible novel of suspense. Having encountered few instances of breathless uncertainty or heart-racing passages that might have lent the book some sorely needed momentum, we are mostly left to plod along with Paul. It soon becomes clear that the story will end with a bang, and there's little doubt who will be left standing. At one point, after clues have accumulated all around him, Paul realizes that he "still didn't get it." Most readers will have gotten it long before. *

Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.