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Disturbing, in a bad way

Published July 17, 2005


By Jeff Lindsay

Doubleday, $22.95, 304 pp

Reviewed by JEAN HELLER

Okay, I'm going to be out here, sitting on a limb all by myself, a lone braying voice in a cacophony of cheers.

The subject is Dexter Morgan, Jeff Lindsay's handsome, witty, Miami-Dade police blood-spatter expert who hates the sight of blood. Dexter also is a serial killer, relentless, brutal and entirely sympathetic because he kills only those people who really, really need killing. Mostly he targets those who molest and murder children.

Who would not want to see someone like that dismembered slowly?

This was the theme of Lindsay's highly acclaimed first Dexter novel last year, Darkly Dreaming Dexter. It was funny, engaging and wholly enjoyable. Many of those who have read Dexter's second adventure, Dearly Devoted Dexter, have had nothing but good to say about it. You will read none of that here.

It starts out well enough. Dexter is on the trail of another child molester. He proceeds as his adoptive police officer father taught him, which is not even to think about touching his favorite sharp knife until he is absolutely, positively sure he's got the right guy. No problem there.

But when Dexter learns that his latest kill had a partner in crime, he is thwarted from tracking down Ogre No. 2 by a cop named Sgt. Doakes, a relentless persona in his own right, who suspects that something about Dexter isn't right. Doakes has assigned himself to dog Dexter's every move. Dexter and his Dark Passenger - the alter ego who drives his perversities - must shelve themselves until they figure out how to duck Doakes.

But there is no time for vengeance, anyway. Through his detective sister, Deborah, Dexter is drawn into a highly murky and endlessly bizarre international intrigue that starts at an old house where police and paramedics find a man mutilated by an assailant.

In order not to ruin your breakfast, I will say only that every piece of every single extremity has been removed, as well as tongue, lips and eyelids. And the perp is so skilled a surgeon that the victim is still alive.

Doakes arrives, apparently because he was following Dexter, and tries to kill what's left of the victim, out of mercy we assume, but Deborah stops him. Then, suddenly, the local authorities are told to stand down by a mysterious agent named Chutsky, who appears to associated with the CIA and takes over the top-secret investigation.

Meanwhile, Dexter idles away his spare time drinking beer on the sofa of a woman named Rita he has chosen to be his pretend girlfriend in hopes of convincing Doakes that he is a normal, red-blooded male. And herein lie the book's main problems.

First, we never get to know Rita and how she feels about this faux romance. From all outward appearances and for no discernable reason, she seems thrilled.

But more disturbing is that Dexter discovers Rita's son enjoys killing small living things, like fish and neighbors' pets, and Dexter spends a great deal of time gleefully planning how he will teach the boy to follow in his lethal footsteps.

The mutilation crimes at the core of the novel are disturbing enough, but this story thread with the kids is repulsive. However, since the whole thing is rather boring and predictable, maybe it doesn't matter.

Chutsky becomes involved romantically with Deborah, so naturally Chutsky becomes a target for the killer, which puts Deborah in danger, too.

The bad guy also targets Doakes, which sets up the book's most interesting dilemma. Should Dexter help save Doakes' life, or should he let the killer do his thing with the sergeant and thereby be rid of his nemesis? Even this resolution isn't very satisfying.

I'm beginning to wonder if Dexter was a one-trick phenom, and once we followed him through the first adventure, there wasn't much reason to do it again. Or perhaps Lindsay just fell into a sophomore slump and can climb out of the hole with the next Dexter.

I'm just not sure I'll be there to watch.

- Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thrillers Handyman and Maximum Impact (Forge).

[Last modified July 15, 2005, 12:42:31]

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