DARK MATTER

By Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Doubleday. 375 pp. $19.95

The classic character of the evil genius is employed to chilling effect in the very first chapter of "Dark Matter," a genuinely sickening set piece in which a "student," tied to a chair and gagged, has her head cut open by a certifiably mad scientist who is explaining some finer points of physics to her. The scientist is talking space, mass, energy and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle while "delicately arranging the student's scalp to hang like a hood from the back of the chair." Then before you can say "yuck," he's slapping a No. 27 burr into the old Huntington skull drill and boring .25-centimeter holes into her head. Having received only a local anesthetic, the terrified young woman remains awake during the surgery.

Kept me awake too. In fact, it's the kind of chapter you want to show to squeamish friends just so you can watch their faces twist in disgust as they read it. A solid 10 on the Gore Scale.

As this scalpel-and-drill-wielding scientist continues fueling his evil genius by fondling living brains, his experiments in quantum mechanics are being sponsored by a corporate-government conspiracy right out of a paranoid nightmare, including a delightfully wacky scene in which two scientists speculate about the military applications of a gravity bomb (downside: It could create a black hole that would destroy the planet) or -- even better -- a gravity accelerator that could produce enough kinetic energy to take out an entire city with a 10-kilo rock.

Meanwhile, back at the Los Angeles Police Department, Detective Kate Duvall has been stripped of her badge and must search out the killer scientist on her own. Tough and resourceful, Duvall suffers many of the problems that for male detectives in fiction have become de rigueur, including an obsession with work that has all but destroyed her personal life. She carries the added burden of trying to prove to herself and others that her success in the department is based on ability and not concessions granted because she is a black female.

It is being a woman, however, that makes her vulnerable as she is tempted to fall in love and in lust with a certain genius scientist who goes to great lengths explaining quantum physics to her, perhaps targeting Duvall as his next "student." Watch it, Kate, you definitely do not want to let this guy get inside your head.

The conceit behind "Dark Matter" is ambitious: to combine an intellectually challenging exploration of physics with a down-and-dirty murder thriller. This ambition is only partly realized, however, because the science discussions dominate the book. The evil genius talks shop constantly -- over dinner, during unauthorized brain surgery and in the middle of sex too:

"Each electron's relativistic frame is dragged at a minutely different velocity ... the time dilation factor in each frame interferes on the boundary edge of each impinging frame ... see?" While he's speaking, his loyal assistant is ... well, what she's doing to him can't really be described here, but I think you could say that when the genius finally figures out the experimental problem he's working on, he does so in one truly climactic insight.

(I'm not mentioning the evil genius's name because his identity is kept secret -- at least in the beginning section of the book. As a complexly fiendish character, he is a success on all counts save one: His spewing of racial and ethnic epithets quickly loses its shock value, deteriorating into a kind of poisonous embarrassment each time we come across them in the text.)

Explanations of quantum mechanics are sufficiently critical to the book that even Duvall is diverted from her crime-solving duties to ask a layman's questions. In fact, I suspect Kate's knowledge of science is shown to be at about the junior high level specifically to make the rest of us feel less like dunderheads. She takes a stab at identifying Isaac Newton, for example, as "The apple on the head guy?"

Although it may seem strange to read a novel -- this is the fifth by Garfield Reeves-Stevens -- that's chockablock with scientific theories, principles, speculations and numbers that run up to 46 decimal places, all this material is handled so deftly, the explanations are so lucid, that you end up either understanding everything or at least believing you understand it all. In fact, if the science in "Dark Matter" could be certified as accurate, the book might well be used as supplementary reading in a physics class, absolutely guaranteed to hold students' interest.

And if you're not taking physics? If you're bored by the more ethereal aspects of quantum theory? Then, no, this book is not going to keep you turning its pages. But if you enjoy thrillers and have a layman's fascination with the writings of Stephen Hawking and with discussions about space, time, black holes and the beginning of the universe, "Dark Matter" will hold you spellbound. In fact, about halfway through you might start thinking, to hell with murders, let's get back to the wonderful world of Max Planck.

The reviewer is a novelist whose most recent book is the suspense thriller "Lie to Me."