LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

By Frank Devlin

Putnam. 256 pp. $23.95

Frank Devlin's "Love in All the Wrong Places" is a literary thriller in the best sense of the word: abundantly violent but also darkly hilarious, well-wrought, perceptive, tart and sometimes touching. It stars two formidable antagonists, Helen and Rose, who have much in common: Both are in their mid-thirties, smart and attractive, are dedicated to their work and have serious problems with men. But they operate on different sides of the street, for Helen is a serial killer and Rose is a San Francisco police inspector.

Helen's problems started early, when she came home from junior high and found her mother on the floor, the victim of a stroke. Rather than call 911, Helen simply took her mother's hand and smiled; she seems to have decided that the poor woman, who spent most of her time cleaning house, would be better off dead. Helen's father, realizing what had happened, inflicted several years of incest on his daughter. Helen accepted her fate ("It was the other shoe dropping, the payment for letting her mother die") but, when she was old enough to have a boyfriend, she picked big, dumb, lethal Jimmy, who obligingly shot her father, whereupon the lovers collected her inheritance and took their show to San Francisco.

Years pass, but Helen continues to have issues with men. Indeed, she has developed a nasty habit of letting them pick her up in bars, going home with them and killing them. The novel's first sentence is: "He looked so beautiful as he came into the bar that for a moment Helen was sorry he was going to die." Henry is thirtyish and has "soft brown eyes, like a koala bear" along with "perfect rounded ears" and a "fresh corporate haircut." He also has "strong opinions about beer, which struck Helen as ridiculous." She softens a bit when he describes his love of trout fishing, but her cool eye cannot ignore his "black silk shirt opened one button too far." At Henry's apartment, Helen notes the Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels on his shelf, his "newish and nondescript" furniture and the refrigerator "filled with Chinese take-out boxes and German microbrews." He does not improve his prospects by playing "Bolero" on his fancy stereo system or by having a red-walled bedroom with ceiling mirrors and a Georgia O'Keeffe print of "a frankly vaginal lily." By the time Henry joins her in bed, "in the grip of the notion that it was his suavity that had accomplished this miracle," Helen isn't "sorry at all anymore that he was going to die." By then, the reader may agree that it's another mercy killing.

The second chapter begins the next morning, as SFPD Inspector Rose Burke has a dispiriting talk with her churlish husband, and wonders: "When did the creeping mediocrity in their intimacy stop being the symptom of a passing disappointment and become the new reality?" Unable to summon the courage to tell him she is pregnant, she proceeds to the day's crime scene, which features poor Henry with his "arms and legs flaccid in a swastika of surprise." Someone has expertly sunk a "gleaming L.L. Bean trout fillet knife" under his ribs and into his heart. Devlin does a good job of portraying both tough-but-sensitive Rose and the crude camaraderie of the police world she inhabits. ("The grosser the death scene, the worse the jokes.") Rose does have this one professional problem: Her partners keep falling in love with her, a fact that has not escaped her husband's sharp eye. As things grow worse between them -- after he suggests an abortion -- Rose alternates between fantasies of divorce and murder.

Helen keeps killing men (with help from the ever-devoted Jimmy), and Rose investigates the crimes, beginning to see connections between them. Many of the highlights of the novel are the pickup scenes, when Helen trades barbs with would-be seducers, most of whom are more sophisticated than Henry, if no less doomed. One fellow quotes Keats, but adds, "I was raised Westchester County agnostic, and our family values ran more to getting into a good college and supporting the New York City Ballet. . . . Reading Keats amounted to getting a tattoo."

"And now?" asks smiling Helen.

"Harvard MBA, good marriage, competent civilized divorce. I added a little weekend cocaine, and I support the San Francisco Symphony. Keats is still my only vice."

"And the cocaine?"

"No. The coke's just secular humanist maintenance."

Helen asks if he has a car. He does, a Mercedes S500. "How Keatsian," says Helen, who despises Mercedeses and the men who drive them. The fellow is found dead in his Mercedes in a carwash the next morning. And so it goes, delicious dialogue leading to murder most feminine, as Helen's crime wave rolls on and Rose's investigation inexorably gains ground.

Author Frank Devlin (a pseudonym for Tim Farrington, whose three previous novels presumably don't involve serial killers) invokes two dubious plot twists, as Helen falls for one fellow instead of killing him and Rose's husband abruptly stops being a jerk and decides he loves her. And there's this: Helen, sweetly perched on her bar stool, can eat a cherry and then, with her tongue, tie its stem into a knot in under 10 seconds. Granted, there are amazingly talented women in this world, but is this feat possible or only an urban legend? No matter. Helen's caustic take on the men of America -- legions of crude, smug, tasteless, clueless Lotharios, marching across bars to claim their due -- should delight women and cause us guys to repent our sins.

Note: After last week's review, several readers reminded me that Humphrey Bogart, in the movie "The African Queen," was up against German forces in World War I, not Nazis in World War II. The 1952 classic was of course directed by John Huston, with a screenplay by Huston and James Agee, and based on the novel by C.S. Forester.