THE TARNISHED EYE

By Judith Guest

Scribner. 267 pp. $24

Nearly three decades ago, an unknown writer in Michigan named Judith Guest published a modest, affecting novel called "Ordinary People." What followed was that genuine rarity, a huge popular success for a book that came out of nowhere. The hardcover edition was favorably reviewed and sold well, though not spectacularly, but the groundwork was laid for the movie adaptation, which appeared in 1980. Directed sensitively by Robert Redford, with fine performances by Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton, the film won four Academy Awards -- including Best Picture -- and established the paperback edition as a perennial popular favorite.

What makes the book's success all the more rare is that it is deserved. Though entirely devoid of literary pretension, "Ordinary People" is smoothly written and emotionally engaging. Its story, about a prosperous midwestern family that is torn apart by the death of its elder son, is told without sentimentality but with deep sympathy for the uptight mother, the easygoing father and the bewildered younger son. It is a nightmare that could affect any family, yet Guest manages to show it in humane rather than morbid light.

That was 1976. In the years since, Guest presumably has collected steady royalties from it, which may explain why she has published only four more books: "Second Heaven" (1982), "Killing Time in St. Cloud" (with Rebecca Hill, 1988), "Errands" (1997) and, now, "The Tarnished Eye." Though the first three of these enjoyed some degree of success, none came close to matching "Ordinary People," either in artistic or commercial terms. As for "The Tarnished Eye," it is my unfortunate duty to report that it has little to recommend it beyond the author's self-evident decency and compassion. Otherwise it is clumsy, obvious and dull.

"The Tarnished Eye" is ostensibly a thriller, but it lacks that genre's most basic ingredient: thrills. I am someone who almost never can guess whodunit, but the instant the person ultimately identified as the murderer appeared on the scene, I knew exactly who he was. All that was left was to see how he's caught, and the details of the chase are notably uninteresting. The other people whom Guest plants as false suspects are self-evidently false the instant they appear, so the reader is left wondering what, precisely, is the point of all this.

Ten people are dead. Six are members of the Norbois family -- mother, father, three teenage sons, a young daughter -- who are found in their lavish waterfront house on Lake Michigan. Four are female students at the University of Michigan. Though the crimes in Ann Arbor and the killings in the northern part of Michigan seem at first to be unrelated, even the most amateur of sleuths -- moi -- knows from the outset that sooner or later they'll dovetail perfectly.

Mostly we see it all through the eyes of Hugh DeWitt, the rural sheriff charged with investigating the lakeside murders, but he isn't to be blamed for the breathless prose Guest puts into his mouth and head. Here he contemplates the bodies he has seen:

"That is the horror of it. Tonight, walking the woods with [an officer] and his dogs -- parallel, six feet apart, searching for anything that might be of use -- he couldn't stop thinking about the people inside. Voiceless, silent; their lives and daily tasks, their ambitions and hopes, their fears and their histories -- all irrelevant now. Worse than that. This act, this moment of their lives has now become the single most important thing about them. Everything they've done, or might have done in the future, pales before their collective deaths. Brutal. Grisly. Sinister. Slaughter. He can see the headlines tomorrow, in every paper in the state."

It's hard to say what's worse about that paragraph: the self-consciously terse prose or the banality of the sheriff's thoughts. Since he isn't portrayed as a banal man -- quite to the contrary, he's meant to be the rock upon which the novel is built -- one is left to assume that the banality is all Guest's, a suspicion confirmed over and over again, as in a passage obviously intended to be so crucial that it's entirely in italics: "The world is a dangerous place. And bad things happen when you least expect them. So don't get too cocky. And don't relax your attention for even a single second."

Alas, deep down, "The Tarnished Eye" is shallow. If it contains a single interesting observation or idea, it escaped my notice. As in everything else Guest has written, sincerity is present on every page, but good intentions do not, in and of themselves, make good novels. Guest chanced upon the true story of an unsolved crime and saw in it the raw material for a novel, but in "The Tarnished Eye" she never brings it to life (or, perhaps more accurately, death) and she actually accomplishes the not-inconsiderable feat of failing to create a single noteworthy character.

All of which is a pity. When someone writes a book as widely admired and loved as "Ordinary People," she or he creates large expectations among those who have read it. Following that kind of success isn't easy, as the biographies of all too many writers and artists make painfully plain. The challenge of repeating oneself can be daunting, even paralyzing.

Over nearly three decades Guest has responded to it earnestly and with an admirable determination not to rest on her past achievement, and in some of the work between "Ordinary People" and "The Tarnished Eye" there are things worthy of praise. But "The Tarnished Eye" is flat and lifeless, all the more so for being written entirely in the present tense. Better luck next time: for her, and for her readers.