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A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT; By Michael Connelly; Little, Brown: 400 pp., $25.95

DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS; By P.D. James; Alfred A. Knopf: 415 pp., $25

THE SYNDROME; By John Case; Ballantine: 464 pp., $25.95

April 15, 2001|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the author, most recently, of "Apocalypses."

The darkness more than night of Michael Connelly's title dwells in the unsettling paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, a 15th century connoisseur of demons. Unsurprisingly, demonic devilries crowd the pages of this effervescent book.

Former FBI agent Terence McCaleb has had a change of heart, quite literally, and now lives on Catalina with wife and adorable tiny daughter. He swallows 54 pills a day and organizes fishing charters. No wonder that when a sheriff's detective, with whom he worked before, appeals to his profiling skills, McCaleb welcomes the chance to get back to doing what he does best in sunny, sinister Los Angeles.

The murder investigation turns into a can of vicious worms, darker than even professionals, used to dark tortured minds, can comfortably handle. It then turns out that the murder suspect picked by McCaleb's profiling is an L.A. police detective and an old acquaintance, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch. Coincidence or clue? The more you read, the the more maze-like become Connelly's coils of complication, the more shadowy the mysteries that lurk around McCaleb and Bosch.

The blurb calls the book riveting and original, but this time Connelly only delivers in part. The spiritual predicaments of his heroes slow down proceedings. So does sentiment. Sensibilities irrelevant to action set attention adrift. Rule 1: Unless they make a contribution to the plot, babies should stay out of thrillers. Rule 2: Surprise twists should prove really surprising. The outcome can be guessed midway through, after which one reads on largely for confirmation. It's a good read, but the tension slackens.

Finally, after villains have been unmasked and their schemes foiled, a few sanctimonious closing pages disregard crucial Rule 3: that criminals get their comeuppance within or without the law. It's strange that an old hand should disregard what Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler never forgot. Connelly's McCaleb does. Perhaps that's why he needs so many pills.

No pills at St. Anselm's, a Church of England theological college on an isolated headland in East Anglia. In P.D. James' "Death in Holy Orders," an accident, or suicide, or murder is followed by a death that may be murder too; then, in short order, by a gruesome killing. Part of a church that's being left behind by its indifferent audience, St. Anselm's is threatened with closing; and every death brings its demise nearer. Was an archdeacon battered down because he wanted to close the college, or did he fall victim to a personal grudge?

Down from Scotland Yard, Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh heads the inquiries through currents of tension seething beneath the surface and, soon, above it too. One more death follows, which may be murder also. But the muted mayhem, inquiries, interrogations and general back-and-forthings progress in mannered fashion. It's no less than one would expect from the pensive, saturnine Dalgliesh or from the story's setting in a closed clerical community as insular as the classic country house where gentlemanly corpses crop up in libraries around teatime. Here, victims turn up in or near the church; and, as suspects are gradually winnowed, the killer will be found to be almost as rational as his captor.

Phyllis Dorothy James, now a life peer as Baroness James of Holland Park, has featured Anglican milieus before ('A Taste for Death," 1986) and served the Church of England for many years, especially on its Liturgical Commission. So details are just right, as is tone. Above all, though, "Death in Holy Orders" is a rueful meditation on the waning of a venerable institution increasingly inconsequential to the world around it, like the condemned college on its desolate coast. Perhaps it is a farewell too, although I hope not, from a precise, elegant and subtle writer who has conveyed so much that's fine-spun for almost two score years.

Time flies. In John Case's "The Syndrome," so does memory. Especially when it has been fabricated and implanted for nefarious ends. Nikki Cope sharp-shoots an old man on a Florida beach for no perceptible reason. Then she commits suicide. Her therapist, Jeff Duran, who lives in a nice part of Washington, has only two clients; now one of them is dead. Duran spends his days watching TV and repeating his mantra: "Two clients are normal, two clients are fine." But his identity is a fake, his personality an invention. Where does his income come from? Whence his memories?

When Nikki's half-sister Adrienne tries to unravel what drove her sibling to death, the inventory of the alleged therapist's mind begins to slip away. The trail of clues and false clues to Jeff's and Nikki's pasts becomes littered with menace, blood and corpses. It presses on into bleak byways and back ways of home-hatched psychic and electronic conspiracies that have got out of hand.

Where the CIA gave up long ago, more sinister private entrepreneurs have taken over. Quite what their motives are we never learn. But we do know that they're profligately murderous, that they will stop at nothing and that the Jeffs and Nikkis of this world are to them pawns easily sacrificed to carnivorous ends. Adrienne and Jeff are after revenge. But they also want to put an end to such free-lance malevolence. Before sailing off into the sunset, they will do just that. The world will be safe from malignant machinations until the evening news.

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