DEATH MATCH

By Lincoln Child

Doubleday. 356 pp. $24.95

Lincoln Child's sleek, futuristic new novel concerns itself with that most elusive of holy grails, the perfect marriage. My own research indicates that such unions are invariably the result of dumb luck, but "Death Match" offers a more scientific approach. A reclusive genius named Richard Silver has built the world's most powerful computer, which he calls Liza, and used it to make his Eden Corp. the Microsoft of romance. For $25,000, Eden's staff will give you extensive testing, and then Liza will match you with the partner of your dreams. "Almost half a million couples" have resulted, and not one couple has reported anything except marital bliss in follow-up evaluations. Eden officials say their computer-matched couples have at least a 95 percent compatibility rate (the average marriage, they say, scores around 35 percent), and six "supercouples" are actually 100 percent compatible. Alas, this miraculous record is threatened in the novel's opening pages, when one of the supercouples, the Thorpes, inexplicably carries out what appears to be a double suicide.

Enter Christopher Lash, forensic psychologist, formerly of the FBI, who is hired by Eden officials to find out what went wrong (and whom Child has named in puckish homage to the late social critic Christopher Lasch, who wrote frequently in defense of the traditional family). His initial investigation shows that neither of the Thorpes had shown any sign of depression, financial worries, marital discord or other suicide indicators. Lash cannot rule out the possibility of murder, although there is no evidence of it. The Thorpes' suicides seem an impenetrable mystery. Then, halfway across America, a second supercouple dies in an almost identical fashion. By now, we and Lash are pondering multiple scenarios. Could this be murder by some rejected Eden applicant -- or by some crazed Eden employee? Or has the company, knowingly or not, somehow given the supercouples more happiness than humankind can bear? "Nature abhors perfection," Lash warns darkly.

Lash spends much of his time at Eden's headquarters, a shimmering tower in midtown Manhattan, studying its records and testing procedures. He learns that Liza has access to government, bank, travel and medical records and can learn virtually everything about Eden's clients. He deals with a company official who seems to lack human emotions and has the villainous name Edwin Mauchly. Eden's offices become increasingly creepy. The cafeteria serves the best espresso Lash has ever tasted, but after drinking it he feels very strange. Eden puts Lash through its testing and then Liza matches him with his perfect partner. Their first date, for dinner at the Tavern on the Green, is indeed memorable. The woman's name is Diana, and she is "tall and raven-haired" with "mischievous hazel eyes." She teaches English literature at Columbia and is just back from a six-week tour of France. Soon they are discussing Tiresias, who in Greek mythology was both woman and man, and who insisted that women enjoy sex far more than men, and then they start tossing haiku across the table. She recites one that is both exquisite and a bit scary:

Insects on a bough

floating downriver,

still singing.

Diana is cool, as blind dates go, but by then we readers -- if not the smitten Lash -- are wildly suspicious of this superchick: Is she a ringer, part of whatever dark conspiracy is unfolding at Eden?

Child's story, while quite ingenious, contains echoes of other stories we all know, from "Frankenstein" to "1984" to "The Stepford Wives" to every mad scientist B-movie we saw as kids. Silver lives in a penthouse suite atop the Eden tower, and his dialogues with his beloved Liza recall the astronauts' exchanges with HAL, the computer-with-a-screw-loose in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Just who is killing the supercouples -- and why and how -- becomes an intriguing question, but I must say that halfway through the novel I had it nailed. Perhaps for that reason, Child tosses in a subplot concerning a serial killer who did terrible harm to Lash a few years earlier, causing him to leave the FBI, and now is inexplicably paroled. But although this subplot (recalling the ordeal of Will Graham, the FBI man in Thomas Harris's "Red Dragon,") promises to put Lash in new peril -- and he's already in plenty -- it's a tease that soon fizzles out.

"Death Match" should be a popular beach book this summer because it is slick, sophisticated entertainment, as well as a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence. But the novel is also derivative, uneven and burdened with too much high-tech mumbo jumbo about "avatars" and "computational hyperspace" and "basal compatibilities." Worst of all, it turns out that Liza can't really produce a perfect marriage. If you want one of those, you still have to trust in dumb luck.