January 14, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

In Bad Love, the latest mystery by Jonathan Kellerman (Devil’s Waltz, Private Eyes), someone is stalking and murdering child psychologists-in lieu, presumably, of filing malpractice suits. Though it doesn’t take shrink-turned-sleuth Alex Delaware very long to realize that all of the targets were once affiliated with the controversial de Bosch Institute and Corrective School-a clinic for troubled kids in Santa Barbara, Calif.-it takes him an extraordinarily long time (twice what Philip Marlowe would’ve needed, I bet) to ferret out just what happened there to turn one of its former students into a cunning serial killer. As a clue chaser, Dr. Delaware can be fairly slow on the uptake, and as a manhunter, he’s plodding to a fault-even when he’s the next scheduled victim.

On the plus side, though, Delaware is a CNN-class interviewer. Put him in the same room with a witness or a lively suspect, as Kellerman does throughout much of the novel, and he’s clearly the man in charge: focused, determined, polite, and thorough. The consummate professional. (But so consummate that you wish he’d break a sweat once in a while, get sidetracked or flustered, maybe even lose his temper.) While his unruffled air can make Delaware sometimes appear a bit of a prig, his simple decency (here’s a guy who mourns the death of a pet carp) is downright reassuring.

Otherwise, the brutality and mayhem in Bad Love might be too much to stomach. No matter that a good number of the novel’s homicides take place off page: We hear about them all, from a hit- and-run to several ritual disembowelments, in grisly detail.

Since Delaware’s turf is Los Angeles, the murder-mystery capital of the world, you can’t fault Kellerman much for skimping on the by-now-familiar local color. Boulevards, canyons, freeways, and suburbs are named, period, and the city’s spirit, or dispirit, is primarily evoked through its citizenry, all of whom-from burned-out social workers and starving street people to neo-Nazi bikers and testy storefront lawyers-know only too well why the infamous L.A. smog carries an unmistakable tang of brimstone. This is Hell, all right, where the smiles are counterfeit and nobody cracks a joke unless it’s a grim one.

As in Kellerman’s previous books, the plot is intricate and tricky, although far too baroque this time to be called ingenious. There are more red herrings than you’d find in a half dozen Agatha Christie novels, and a few of the killer’s nastier shenanigans strain credulity, making him seem more like Freddy Krueger operating with the full resources of the CIA than a mere renegade psychopath.

By the climax, Kellerman has dumped logic almost entirely, turning what had been a top-of-the-line suspense novel into a preposterous TV-style ratings grabber, complete with a burning house, a trussed-up heroine, and Alex Delaware at the mercy of a ski-masked villain. Then, crashing through the plate-glass window comes-oh, never mind. Point is, we really deserve a nimbler finale. If you’ve never read any of the Delaware mysteries before, for Pete’s sake don’t start with this one. And if you’re a longtime Kellerman fan, what can I say? Bad Love is bound to disappoint. Wait for the paperback. C

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