Blood Work
By Michael Connelly
Little, Brown; 400 pages; $23.95

Having established a successful mystery series with his Harry Bosch books, Michael Connelly, author of "Trunk Music" and "The Last Coyote," has begun to turn his hand to stand-alone novels. His first such effort, "The Poet," gathered a strong head of steam before flying off the rails at the end and landing in a twisted heap of narrative rubble. With his new novel "Blood Work," he maintains a much tighter degree of control, delivering a well-wrought, highly suspenseful and satisfying thriller.

Recuperating from a heart transplant, former FBI agent Terry McCaleb figures his days of tracking serial killers are long over. But when Graciela Rivers, the organ donor's sister, shows up at his boat, he finds himself drawn back into his old, dangerous habits. Gloria Torres died in a convenience store robbery, and the police have no suspects and no leads. Graciela wants the shooter found and punished.

McCaleb risks a lot by undertaking the investigation, the stress of it jeopardizing his newly installed, and easily rejected, heart. Not only does his growing affection for Graciela Roberts drive him, but he is still consumed by a hunger to see killers pay for their atrocities. Connelly writes, "He had seen first-hand what they had done and he wanted them to pay for the horrible manifestations of their fantasies. Blood debts had to be paid in blood. That was why in the bureau's serial killer unit the agents called what they did blood work. There was no other way to describe it. And so it worked on him, cut at him, every time one didn't pay. Every time one got away."

McCaleb determines that Glory Torres's shooting was not an unpremeditated act, that her death falls within a pattern of other seemingly random killings. As if that weren't strange enough, the case pivots around in way to that directly involves McCaleb. Soon, the former FBI agent is on the run from the cops and pursued by a singularly devious serial killer.

Although he doesn't have the hard-case charm of Harry Bosch or the literary flair of Jack McEvoy, the reporter protagonist of "The Poet," Terry McCaleb proves a sufficiently complex and competent investigator to keep "Blood Work" involving and moving at a good clip. Making him a transplant recipient serves as more than a gimmicky hook, adding a further layer of vulnerability and desperation to his obsessive quest.

Connelly is fond of mid-book reversals and false endings, always relishing the chance to up-end the reader's expectations and reveal a new set of answers for questions long believed resolved. Sometimes he goes too far, though. A kind of heedless need for over-complication scuttled his otherwise compelling "The Poet." By the time Connelly settled on the villain's true identity and motives, he had rendered that novel's climax and denouement utterly absurd.

"Blood Work" has its fair share of unexpected turns, but this time Connelly manages to keep them within the realm of plausibility. The likeliness of the way in which McCaleb tracks the killer to his final hiding place may raise a few eyebrows, but for the most part, Connelly plays fair and obeys the laws of logical plotting.

It's hard for many crime writers to break away from the characters who have made them famous. If Connelly can maintain the level of energy and craftsmanship on display in "Blood Work," he has a good shot of having his non-series work match the popularity of his Harry Bosch novels.

(c) 1998 by Michael Berry

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