HOUR GAME

By David Baldacci

Warner. 437 pp. $26.95

In David Baldacci's new "Hour Game," his fictional Wrightsburg, Va., abruptly emerges as the murder capital of America. It does so thanks to a fiendish serial killer, who, aided by a copycat, quickly eliminates 11 citizens of little Wrightsburg, which we're told is somewhere near Charlottesville. The police are predictably clueless, and Wrightsburg's best hope for ending the slaughter rests with the duo of Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, ex-Secret Service agents who are partners in crime-fighting.

Maxwell is 32, a former Olympic medalist in rowing and drop-dead gorgeous. King is fortysomething, a student of wine and art, and blessed with the finest investigative mind Maxwell has ever encountered. They indulge in a lot of inane banter, but they are not lovers, and it is just as well because the victims of the crime spree tend to be people who engage in sex, including a stripper, a young couple making out in a car on lovers' lane, a rich old womanizer and a grown-up couple who succumb to a brief affair. Baldacci's gee-whiz view of sex is suggested when one of his characters visits a strip club called Aphrodisiac: "The shapely, barely clothed women were performing acts so lewd against the metal dancing poles that it would have caused their poor mothers to die of humiliation -- after they had strangled their shameless daughters, that is." For some reason, this passage made me think of Noel Coward's song "Alice Is at It Again," in which the parents took a more practical view of their daughter's misdeeds.

We are given glimpses of the serial killer at work without knowing his identity. He is awesomely bright -- a member of Mensa, we are told -- and he wears a black hood and models his killings after noted serial killers of yesteryear: the Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam and the like. Midway through his crime spree, someone else kills a citizen or two, hoping the serial killer will be blamed, and indeed he resolves to kill the copycat who is stealing his thunder. He keeps several jumps ahead of the police by bugging just about every telephone in town. In time the investigation centers on a rich old Virginia family called Battle, whose members are variously crazy, diseased, addicted, degenerate and possibly homicidal. The novel abounds with bizarre scenes that exist mainly to provide cheap thrills.

One night the killer has King minutes from death when Maxwell calls him and, receiving no answer, hurries to his house to save him with seconds to spare. The killer shoots her before fleeing, but we are repeatedly told that her wound was only a scratch. ("Only a flesh wound," as they used to say in bad movies.) A minor character sells stolen drugs to a mysterious woman who conceals her identity while meeting him in a room at Aphrodisiac. One night she performs a striptease for him: "As if sensing his thoughts, transparent as they were, she reached behind her, undid the clasp, and the bra fell to the floor and her breasts sprang free. Kyle moaned and almost dropped to his knees. This was, without doubt, the greatest night of his life." But when poor Kyle tries to consummate the relationship, the woman pulls a gun and he is forced to flee, whereupon she swallows some pills, and "a few minutes later she was moaning on the floor, happy again."

Things grow curiouser and curiouser. The killer is caught but escapes from his cell by means I can only call ludicrous. (Serious students of the genre should compare this scene with a similar escape in "The Silence of the Lambs" for an example of really bad writing and really good writing.) A bit later, the fiend is about to chop someone's head off, but "before he could bring it down on her neck, the handle of the ax exploded." This is thanks to Maxwell's sharpshooting. In a shootout a moment later, "Beating odds of probably a billion to one, the two bullets had collided."

Beating odds of probably a billion to one, I survived this novel with my sanity intact. And it must be said in Baldacci's favor that he seems to take his tale quite seriously; he keeps the corpses piling up in a workmanlike manner, and I never guessed who the killer would be -- or the copycat, for that matter. Still, "Hour Game" is rough sledding. On the basis of Baldacci's "Absolute Power," a pretty good political thriller, and "Wish You Well," a nostalgic look at rural life in the Depression, I had a favorable impression of his talents. But with this book he has entered the James Patterson Really Bad Thriller Sweepstakes. Patterson's fans might enjoy "Hour Game," but readers who prefer thrillers that offer logic, style, plausibility or depth should look elsewhere.