DEAD AIM

By Thomas Perry

Random House. 366 pp. $24.95 Most of us, at one time or another, have felt a serious urge to kill someone -- a stupid boss, an obnoxious neighbor, a faithless lover -- but we hold back for fear of the consequences. In Thomas Perry's wicked new thriller, "Dead Aim," you can kill with impunity. It's expensive, of course, but the good things in life usually are.

First you must pay $40,000 for a month at Michael Parish's School of Self-Defense, on a ranch outside Santa Barbara, where Parish and his staff will instruct you in martial arts and the use of firearms. All that is legal, of course, but by the end of the month, if you are rich and bored and not overly nice, perhaps you have an idea forming in your mind. So you have a little talk with Parish, a supremely understanding man, and learn that for another $50,000 he will arrange a hunt for you. It will be rather like a lion hunt on an African safari, except that the target will be the person of your choice. Or, if you don't care whom you kill -- if you wish to kill for sport, rather than revenge -- Parish will select your target. It's all business to him. As he explains to one customer, "The rule for a target here is that the client wants to kill him. I don't judge whether or not the target deserves it. I don't shoot a deer because the deer deserves to be shot. I do it because I want to."

For your hunt, Parish will provide a tracker to find and engage the target, and a scout to guard your privacy. The tracker and the scout will be attractive young women, trained by Parish in the lethal arts. A professional hunter, perhaps Parish himself, will complete the hunting party. The idea is to give you a clean shot at your target; but should you lose your nerve or encounter resistance, the professional hunter will complete the kill. He and his young women will also eliminate any witnesses who might happen by.

Parish, originally from South Africa, honed his skills as a soldier of fortune in African wars, and then came to America to seek new opportunities. By the time the novel opens, his hunts have made him rich. After all, he is performing a public service: "We should get a medal for this. We're just giving rich bastards permission to kill other rich bastards. We're purifying the race, getting rid of the weak and credulous."

Then Parish's work intersects with the life of a man named Robert Mallon. At the age of 48, Mallon is rich, divorced, living in Santa Barbara and bored. Walking on the beach one day, he saves the life of a young woman who is trying to drown herself. He takes her home, likes her, makes love to her, but when he leaves her alone, she completes the suicide he had interrupted. Feeling guilty, Mallon sets out to investigate the young woman's life, and hires a private investigator to help him.

He learns that the young woman's boyfriend had been murdered in Los Angeles and that she had attended Parish's self-defense camp. He and his private investigator, a woman, visit the camp and ask more questions than anyone should ask Michael Parish. Not long after that, the private investigator is murdered, and Mallon realizes that people are trying to kill him, too. But when he goes to the police, they think he is at best a nut and at worst probably the one killing these people who keep dying around him.

Parish and his pack hunt Mallon until, inevitably, he turns the tables and starts to hunt them. Prior to that final confrontation, we observe several more of Parish's urban safaris. One of them comes about because a Washington lawyer had an affair with a partner in her firm; when she tried to end the relationship, he had her fired. The gentleman pays for his mistake; with Parish's help, she shoots him dead in a Georgetown alley. It's a sweet scene, marred only by the author's shaky grasp of local geography -- we don't usually take the Metro to Georgetown.

That is one of Perry's few slips in this, his 13th novel. His early books won prizes, his recent ones have been bestsellers, and along the way he has won a reputation as one of the sharpest thriller writers in the business. "Dead Aim" shows why. It's smart, funny and nasty; it will grab you and not let go. Perry, like his man Parish, is a complete professional.