A DEFENSE FOR THE DEAD

By Michael Fredrickson

Forge. 320 pp. $24.95

The serial-killer thriller is the cicada of popular fiction. The damn things are everywhere. The difference is that cicadas, to the untrained eye at least, are all the same, whereas an occasional serial-killer tale rises above the ordinary. One of the first I remember reading, and one of the best, was John Katzenbach's "The Traveler," published in 1987. As a young reporter, Katzenbach had covered the Ted Bundy trial in Florida, and his lethal "traveler" was Bundy-like in looks and charm. As I recall the plot, he traveled around America reproducing famous murders of yesteryear. Soon it became the norm for fictional serial killers to follow a theme. In real life, most such killers are ignorant thugs, but in novels they devise ingenious, often literary blueprints for their crimes. In David Hewson's recent "A Season for the Dead," set in Rome, the killer reproduced the deaths of Christian martyrs. In Val McDermid's "Killing the Shadows," the killer inflicted on famous crime writers the horrid deaths they had devised for their characters. All this is good clean fun, but one serious question needs to be addressed: Why are we as a nation so fascinated with serial killers? I mean, let's face it, we're far more likely to fall victim to an SUV piloted by some idiot jabbering on a cell phone.

The greatest American serial killer -- the Huck Finn, the Alexander Portnoy, the Jay Gatsby of serial killers -- is of course Thomas Harris's cultivated cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Consider his progress in three increasingly weird novels. In "Red Dragon" he was in prison, where he clearly belongs. But in "The Silence of the Lambs," Harris had two inspirations. The first was to introduce the young, pretty FBI agent Clarice Starling and to have Lecter develop a certain perverse interest in her. The other inspiration was to let Lecter escape from prison. Most recently, in "Hannibal," Lecter was living a cultivated life in Florence, although he was obliged to eliminate various tiresome people who threatened his freedom. Near the end of the book, he drugged poor Clarice and made her his mistress. They were last glimpsed at the opera in Buenos Aires.

Whither Hannibal and Clarice? In a just world, she would free herself from the monster's clutches and bring him to justice. But Thomas Harris's world may not be just. It is notable that the people Lecter kills have increasingly been portrayed as deserving their fates. When he sauteed the brains of the corrupt and obnoxious FBI agent in "Hannibal," we were invited to cheer. What might happen in a fourth installment? Harris is a mad genius, and in moments of despair I imagine a new novel, "Hannibal Triumphant," in which Lecter returns home to launch a successful race for president, with the campaign slogan "If It's Killing You Want -- Elect a Professional!"

Which brings me, kicking and screaming, to Michael Fredrickson's very odd "A Defense for the Dead." It seems to be a serial-killer novel, although the serial killer is dead when the action starts but is perhaps trying to influence events from the hereafter. Two FBI agents come to visit a lovable but essentially sleazy Boston lawyer named Jimmy Morrissey. The FBI has shot and killed a murderer who was called Van Gogh because of his habit of cutting an ear off his victims, who were all gay men. Near the dead killer's body was a photo of a pretty blond woman, with Jimmy's name and address written on the back. Jimmy didn't know the killer and is accused of no crime, but he becomes obsessed with finding out why the man had his name. He traces the picture to Provincetown, where the pretty blonde proves to be a man who performs as Virginia Dentata in a drag show at a bar called the Drooping Lizard. It develops that Virginia's lover was one of Van Gogh's victims. Another troubling connection between Jimmy and the serial killer turns up: A scam artist who is one of Jimmy's clients turns out to be an ex-lover of the killer.

Jimmy has a nice wife who is fighting breast cancer, and a ditsy secretary named Taffy whose hulking ex-boyfriend is stalking her. Taffy says things about her ex-boyfriend like "He had a head full of loose change" and "He just showed up and fogged the mirror." Unfortunately Taffy trusts Jimmy to get rid of the stalker, and he takes a bad situation and makes it far worse. Jimmy is, in truth, a born loser. He becomes convinced that someone other than Van Gogh killed Virginia's boyfriend and that the dead serial killer is somehow expecting him to put things right. Before his investigation is over, another man is dead and Jimmy is facing prison.

"A Defense for the Dead" is more shaggy-dog story than anything else, but enlivened by throwaway lines, like this one when Jimmy is questioning a dimwitted client: "Jimmy could almost see the hamster in the man's head, kicking the little wheel into overdrive as he clamored for a way out." Or when Taffy says, speaking of another worthless man in her life, "he was a knife, he couldn't saw through soup." For his next novel, I think Fredrickson should reinvent Taffy as a serial killer, dedicated to eradicating really dumb guys in Greater Boston. This could be a series.