Readers of contemporary historical fiction have, for the most part, two choices: to be titillated and misinformed, or to be bored an educated. Malachi Martin's book is an exception. It is both boring and uninformative -- unless the reader happens to be turned on by mayhem, gore and torture. It might be argued that the detailed descriptions of massacres general and singular accurately reflect the mores of a semibarbaric society whose gods, including Jahweh, encouraged their worshippers to annihilate enemies down to the babes in the cradles.

But "King of Kings" is the story of David, the sweet singer of Israel, the shepherd boy who killed the giant, the lover whose passion for a woman caused him to violate his deepest moral convictions, the father crying out in agony over a son who betrayed him -- the man appointed by God to rule over Israel. To reduce his life to a series of battles is to ignore one of the grandest plots in history.

Martin does mention these other incidents, but somehow they never come to life. Between battles, David and the other characters move jerkily from one prescribed position to the next, making the traditional remarks and gestures; never are we inspired to feel the passion and the agony, the exultation and the remorse.

Again and again, as the story proceeds, the reader gropes for a unifying theme that will tie everything together. Early in the book this seems to have been defined: Behind all the minor political and personal conflicts lies the cosmic struggle between Jahweh-Adonai and Dagon, the god worshipped by the Philistines, who are represented as the Hebrews' greatest enemies. The ideological differences between these two are never really clear; the arbitrary cruelty of Jahweh seems scarcely preferable to the nasty habits of Dagon, and David's conquest of the heathen god, two-thirds of the way through the book, makes the remaining struggle seem anticlimactic.

Martin's credentials include several archaeological seasons in the Near East. It is disappointing to see so little reliance on recent discoveries in this sea. True, the physical remains from the early 10th century B. C. are scanty in the extreme, but more might have been done with what is known. Kenyon's excavations at Jerusalem have altered previous conceptions of what the Jebusite city, conquered by David, must have been like; it was much greater in extent than was supposed, and the Gihon spring, which provides the locale for David's hair-raising (and purely fictitious) swim through the underground tunnel, was almost certainly enclosed within the Jebusite walls. Martin's description of the subterranean water system and its outlets does not agree with what is presently known of such constructions, not only in Jerusalem but in other cities, such as Megiddo.

For the most part, Martin relies, not on archaeology or his own imagination, but on the scenario provided by the court history of David, as recorded in the books of First and Second Samuel and First Kings. It might seem that a writer who starts out with a pre-existing plot outline has an advantage. Actually, I suspect that the reverse is the case, at least in this particular instance. The story of David is so well-known to readers that is has assumed a finished shape in most minds. The gaps have already been filled and the motives supplied; the characters are distinctive and individualized. Indeed, they have become literary cliches. It is only necessary to mention David and Jonathan to conjure up an image of brotherly love; Saul, Samuel, Bathsheba and Absalom are archetypes; the mere mention of their names supplies a total picture.

But an author who wishes to expand the brief history given in the Old Testament into a modern historical novel cannot leave it at that. He must supply the missing motives and replace the divine judgements of God by psychologically comprehensible decisions. In "King of Kings," David's complex character and seemingly inconsistent actions are never convincingly explained; his understandable confusion about his god's intentions is never really resolved. The minor characters are equally wooden. Michal, the daughter of Saul, loves David initially; after she has been taken away from him, she returns a bitter, hating woman. Why? The fact is stated, but it is never explained.

The story of David in the original version is a masterpiece of historical fiction. Its survival and its enduring ability to move readers and inspire writers is proof of its quality. An author who hopes to improve on it is asking for trouble. It is a hard act to follow.