- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

It would be easy to like Dexter, a pleasant, hard-working, one might even say dedicated, young man making a career in forensics with the Miami police department.

It would be easy but it would be a mistake, because Dexter is a psychopathic serial killer who does not even understand the concept of liking and being liked.

Writer Jeff Lindsay is to be congratulated on his debut novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter (Doubleday, $22.95, 288 pages), one of the most original and intriguing — and darkly amusing — works to cross this reviewer’s desk in many a year.

Something happened when Dexter was a very small child, something he does not remember. In fact, everything before the event is a blank. Fortunately for the world, Dexter is adopted by a father who is a policeman, and Dexter’s daddy figures out just what kind of monster is living in his house.

A lesser man might have arranged a little accident for the adolescent Dexter, who has been making inroads, and incisions, in the neighborhood pet population. Instead, daddy works with what he has — an unfeeling predator — to create a carefully crafted executioner, who kills only people who deserve killing.

The problem starts when a second serial killer adopts Dexter’s techniques, with less care about the choice of victims. Dexter is puzzled; Dexter is annoyed — and Dexter is on the hunt.

Mr. Lindsay is to be admired. His picture of a psychopath is accurate and unsparing (I have known two, possibly three, of the breed) and Dexter’s actions are always within the parameters of the mental condition. The people around Dexter deal with him as if he were “really human” and the trigger that caused his condition is believable.

The book jacket says Mr. Lindsay is at work on a second Dexter novel. I am eager to read it.

• • •

Wilson Bledsoe has a lovely wife, a lovely home, lots of friends and a world-renowned reputation for the research he is doing at Dartmouth College. So when he turns up dead, the n-word carved into his chest with a portable saw, police are quick to turn to the local chapter of Bigots-R-Us.

So begins The Blackbird Papers (Doubleday, $24.95, 326 pages), Ian Smith’s debut novel and the introduction of FBI agent Sterling Bledsoe.

Sterling is the younger brother and he has spent most of his life in the shadow of brilliant, ambitious Wilson — and sometimes it hurts. But when Wilson’s wife reports him missing, Sterling wastes no time reaching the small college community.

If racial hatred is not the motive for the crime, and the local bigots are remarkably well-covered with alibis, then why did someone target this well-liked man? Could it have something to do with the odd die-off of the area’s red-winged blackbirds?

Dr. Smith’s first stab at mystery writing — he writes a column for the magazine Men’s Health — wings along nicely but stumbles slightly when Sterling gets fitted out as a suspect in his brother’s death. The attempt to frame him should be something that comes apart like a beginner’s knitting, but it sends Sterling running, the better for the bad guys to chase him.

Nevertheless, this is a promising debut and Sterling more than holds his own. Let’s look forward to the next one, when Sterling will be out from under Wilson’s shadow, at least professionally.

• • •

Walking Money (Putnam, $23.95, 262 pages) is an excellent title for James O. Born’s debut novel because it’s “The Trouble With Harry” with cash instead of a corpse.

Dirty money is supposed to stay put, to sleep quietly in a safe-deposit box until it is scooped up for a quick getaway when a scam reaches its logical, illegal conclusion. The stash in question is $1.5 million milked out of people who really can’t afford any kind of loss, by a bottom-feeding self-proclaimed community activist who never considered that someone might be setting him up as a mark.

And that is just the beginning of the journey, as the money bounces from one hand to another like a demented ping-pong ball.

The plot for this one is as easily described as a Donald Westlake outing, which it resembles without in any way being a knockoff. Don’t ask; just read it and enjoy.

My sister, who lived in and reported from South Florida for many years, assures me that nothing is too crazy to happen in that part of the world. Mr. Born has been a lawman there for much of his life so he has lots of craziness to draw upon. This bodes well for future books. Soon, Mr. Born, soon.

• • •

Did you know that there are Web sites promoting the anorexia and bulimia “lifestyle”? Ayelet Waldman’s Murder Plays House (Berkley Prime Crime, $23.95, 312 pages) explores the phenomenon as pregnant heroine Juliet Applebaum goes looking for a larger house and finds murder instead.

A former public defender, Juliet has dropped out to raise her growing family. She works as an investigator for a private detective because she knows exactly what a defense lawyer needs to know — and because it gets her out of the house occasionally so she won’t lose her mind. At-home moms, take note. This author feels your pain.

When house-hunting turns up a corpse in a desirable piece of real estate, Juliet offers to run interference for the owners in return for having first dibs on the property. A little thing like a body in the bathtub isn’t enough to turn away a buyer in Los Angeles’ hot market. Especially for a woman desperate for another bedroom.

Juliet stumbles over the anorexia link and provides a convincing look at the victims of a distorted body image and crashing self-esteem. It’s enough to send the rest of us in search of a hot fudge sundae just to celebrate our pleasure in eating.

Miss Waldman’s Mommy-Track Mystery series has produced a string of reliably entertaining novels; not as edgy as the Alphabet series or as funny as the Number novels, but always good value for the mystery reader. This one could be the best yet.

Judith Kreiner is a copy editor at The Washington Times.

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