I've been hearing a lot about "A Cold Mind"--and with good cause, I think; it's terrific.

By terrific, I mean that it satisfies on a number of levels, not the least of which is the quality of the writing. But it's also one of the scariest books I've ever read, and it's this without cheap tricks. The plot is scary, the enterprise that sets the plot in motion is scary, and the murderer (beside whom the Red Dragon seems like a candidate for Scoutmaster) is scariest of all.

This wouldn't be so if Lindsey didn't write with such restraint (usually). When he describes the madman preparing what he uses as a murder weapon, it is done in great detail and yet dispassionately, as if the man is rolling a pie crust or repairing a leaky faucet. The effect is tripled by this technique.

One of the creepiest scenes I've ever read (and no, I'm not exaggerating) is an encounter between the murderer and one of the prostitute-victims. There's no violence. No sexual contact. In fact, if I told you what the man makes the woman do, you would probably laugh. But there's nothing funny about it; it is a stunning scene, a scene so horrifying I could barely breathe while I was reading it.

There are also nice, warm moments throughout. The main character, Det. Stuart Haydon, for instance, has a wonderful relationship with his wife, Nina, and with his aging collie, Cinco. Of Haydon and Nina, Lindsey tells us: "Sometimes . . . they would go to sleep that way, with her rubbing the inside of his foot with her toes. It was, he thought, a simple but genuine gesture, something from the very heart of what people needed from each other." The dog is first seen approaching Haydon's car: "Cinco managed a bit of a canter, then slowed to a measured hobble . . . His muzzle was graying in a codgerly way and small scaly spots were appearing on the ridge of his nose and on the tips of his ears, like liver spots on an old man's hands."

Reading this book, one never has the feeling that either element--the warmth or the horror--was inserted artificially, for balance. Both seem to spring from the characters Lindsey creates. Though this is only as it should be. How often, these days, do we get it?

The atmosphere of Lindsey's novel is, similarly, honest and utterly real. It is set in Houston, and we see the city whole--its steamy as well as its slick side. Descriptions of the city's sprawl, its high rises, its underground tunnels, its wharfs and warehouses excel.

I've a few quibbles, though, and frankly, I liked this book so much that I'd keep them to myself were it not for the fact that Harper and Row has signed Lindsey to produce a series of books featuring homicide detective Stuart Haydon.

The first quibble is that Lindsey seems to think he has to really rev his prose every now and again. I can see him hunched over his word processor, trying to keep the thesaurus from sliding off his knees. Witness: "In the gloam between them the cloud iridesced, each scintilla candent above them, each growing heavy with its own moribund mission."

The second is that sometimes he shows off at the expense of his reader. He writes, for instance, that one character's features "had always reminded Haydon of the luckless German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer." I just don't believe this. I'd believe that Bonhoffer had fought Rocky Graziano or ridden a Kentucky Derby winner or something, but given who Bonhoffer was and what he actually did, I just don't buy this reference, even with Haydon's fine education.

But this sort of lapse doesn't happen often. When Lindsey is good, which is most of the time, he is very, very good. I'm just hoping that in future entries, it won't happen at all.

Meanwhile, don't wait for the movie (this is begging to be filmed!). This is a book worth buying.