After the news stories about Son of Sam and Ted Bundy, after dozens of movies and novels (including Thomas Harris’ definitive contributions to the genre, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs), are there any fresh shocks left in the idea of a psychotic serial killer? Maybe not. So maybe it isn’t surprising that David L. Lindsey, eager to make a big-book splash, has decked out this 513-page serial-killer thriller — Mercy — with extra sources of titillation: a nonstop parade — occasionally chilling, often merely lurid — of illicit lust, sexual aberration, and maniacal brutality.

In a two-week period, three well-to-do Houston women — two married, one single — are found dead, elaborately laid out in various bedrooms, perfumed and mutilated. (”For me,” says one of the cops, ”the missing eyelids don’t hold a candle to that eviscerated navel.”) The investigation soon reveals that all three victims belonged to an underground network of upper-crust lesbian and bisexual women, some of whom are deep — and I mean deep — into sadomasochism. Furthermore, all three women were at some time treated by Dr. Dominick Broussard, an icily elegant psychiatrist who thinks nothing of having sex with his society-lady patients and is mighty confused about his own gender. Dr. B. is the prime suspect, of course. But homicide detective Carmen Palma becomes convinced that the psycho is a woman, even though her FBI sidekick (a crusty widower) insists that only men can fit the serial-killer profile.

Lindsey, author of a classy police-procedural series also set in Houston, puts a thoughtful, literate gloss on all but the most sordid doings here. The cops are appropriately moody; the lesbians have dignity; the psychopathology is earnest, even if not particularly convincing. Still, neither intelligence nor craftsmanship can hide the fact that there’s something contrived, not to mention derivative, at the core of this dank spectacle.

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