(TABLE) (COLUMN)This is the seventh book by Madison Jones, a southern writer best known for the novel "A Cry of Absence." He begins "Season of the Strangler" as follows:(COLUMN)"The summer of 1969 was one that the people of Okaloosa, Alabama (pop. 38,400) are not likely to forget. There is more than a single reason. For one thing that summer produced the climax of racial unrest that had been visibly growing for at least a decade. It also, perhaps, witnessed the climax of a more general unrest of which the racial was only a part -- the unrest that comes when old ways of being are rudely displaced by new ones. So, that summer would no doubt have been memorable in any case. But in fact there is a much more dramatic reason for why that one is remembered as different from all the others."(COLUMN)The reason is a series of five murders, taking place between May and September -- stranglings of five women, all but one of them elderly. The killings plunge the city into a "long summer of fear, when people locked and barred their doors and windows and looked suspiciously about them at every cranky neighbor." Mistrust and speculation filled the air: "Throughout the summer and fall and afterward too there continued to be an inexhaustible stock of rumors. They were based mostly on nothing: somebody's speculations or a sign misread or a flimsy piece of evidence blown up and distorted. By late summer there had been already at least half a dozen people named and for a time suspected of being the Strangler."(COLUMN)Jones tells the story of that summer in a dozen chapters, each devoted to a different resident of the city; there is little interconnection among the chapters. These people are: an old man living with his son and daughter-in-law; a woman who at age 40 has suddenly begun an affair; a minister who becomes increasingly obsessed with the Strangler; an older black man who is widely regarded in his community as an Uncle Tom; a philandering doctor whose former wife is rotting away in an institution; a shy teen-ager who has recently moved to town; a schoolteacher in her forties who develops maternal interests in an awkward young man; a violent, angry black man; a shoe-store owner who faces a crisis in his life; an aspiring painter of nonexistent talent; the female owner of an old hotel; a young man at loose ends.(COLUMN)In different ways all of these people are outsiders, at once separate from the community and anxious for acceptance by it. They are people at moments of crisis, moments when their lives will be changed, often by force. In all of them there lurks a potential for violence:(COLUMN)"There was a night of rain. It ticked at the windowpanes and whispered in the shrubbery outside. 'It doesn't have to be a Negro, like they say,' his mother said. 'It could be anybody nowadays. Anybody.' "Joel was thinking of the picture on his easel. No life. Dead. Ruin, it seemed, was waiting for him.(COLUMN)" 'It could be somebody on this very street, that we see every day. Walking around like everybody else. It's that kind of a world.' "(COLUMN)Jones is saying that the Strangler is in all of us: "He slept with his bedlight on and his radio, tuned to an all-night station out of town, softly playing . . . There were still times when he waked in the night afraid for his beating heart, from a dream of himself with his hands reached out to seize a woman's throat." Unfortunately, he says it over and over again, with an insistent didacticism that by the third or fourth chapter is positively infuriating. He announces his themes with the blare of trumpets, and he plays them at full volume from first page to last.(COLUMN)He also explores those themes in a prose that, for a writer whose previous work was marked by some stylistic distinction, is fuzzy and awkward. What, for example, does he mean when he writes: "He died when Joel was only 12, in an auto crash with a Negro boy . . ."? Does he mean that his car crashed into another car driven by a Negro boy, or that a Negro boy was in the car with him, or that he and a Negro boy both were killed? Then there are the sentences wholly without rhythm or grace, with a false and stilted folksiness: "There were the usual promises, which Stella believed, which maybe he did too for a while." From the considerable accomplishment of "A Cry of Absence," Jones has slipped markedly. That is a tough, spare novel about a southern woman who learns that one of her sons has murdered a civil-rights activist; it is a moving examination of the predicament of the individual at a time of social upheaval, and a realistic portrayal of the "new" South. But "Season of the Strangler" is poorly, sloppily written, larded with ham-handed irony, and devoid of narrative movement. It's hard to imagine that the same man wrote both books.(END TABLE)