Originally created 12/12/04

Copycat serial killer stalks town in 'Hour Game'



David Baldacci's latest novel, "Hour Game," is rich and deeply textured, and it marks the return of former Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, introduced in the author's "Split Second" (2003).

King and Maxwell are now working together as private investigators, which Baldacci ("Absolute Power") describes as a partnership of a supernova and steady glacier. King is introspective and likes to think things out before taking action, while Maxwell is impulsive. Yet these skillful investigators have made their business a success.

The relative calm of Wrightsburg, Va., the small town where King and Maxwell have set up shop, is disturbed by someone savagely mimicking famous serial killers, including the San Francisco Zodiac killer, and David Berkowitz, who, as Son of Sam, terrorized New York in the 1970s.

While investigating a burglary at the home of wealthy businessman Robert E. Lee Battle and his exceedingly dysfunctional family, King and Maxwell are pulled into the hunt for the murderer.

The killer leaves watches on the victims set to the hour corresponding to their position on his hit list. Yet he also writes letters insisting that he's not a copycat, and some of the watches are set one tick off, at one minute past the hour.

"I'm not getting this," says Maxwell. "Why commit murders in similar styles to past killers as a copycat would and then write letters making it clear you're not them?"

As the body count grows, King begins to suspect there are two killers - and is soon a target himself.

There are terrific action sequences throughout "Hour Game," and plenty of surprises and suspense. Like King and Maxwell, readers must follow the clues in this fast-paced whodunit.

Baldacci also manages to inject a little humor. At one point, King is incredulous that Maxwell has her gun, but not her cell phone. "I think I have my priorities right," she retorts. "What can I do with a phone: call him to death?"

A cipher disk, used to decode encrypted messages, ultimately holds the key to this intriguing mystery, one of Baldacci's strongest thrillers in years.

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"Hour Game." By David Baldacci. Warner Books. 437 Pages. $26.95.