"Mary, Mary." By James Patterson. Little, Brown. 392 Pages. $27.95.
There's nothing particularly clever or compelling in James Patterson's latest Alex Cross thriller, "Mary, Mary," which finds the former homicide detective valiantly trying to juggle work and family life.
Cross ("Kiss the Girls," "Along Came a Spider") has traveled from Washington, D.C., to California for a much-needed vacation in Disneyland with his children, including 3-year-old Alex Jr., who lives with his mother in Seattle.
His FBI bosses call him in to assist in the investigation of the murder of Antonia Schifman, an Oscar-winning actress. This prompts Alex Jr.'s mother, who is concerned about possible violence, to whisk their son back home.
Schifman and her limo driver were shot in front of her Beverly Hills home; her face had been repeatedly slashed. The actress was killed as her four children were asleep inside the house.
She is the latest victim of a killer who sends bizarre e-mails to an entertainment editor at the Los Angeles Times. The e-mails are signed "Mary Smith."
More murders follow, drawing Cross deeper into the case. The victims' faces are repeatedly slashed. There is a calling card, too - a row of children's stickers, each marked with a capital letter, two with an A, one with a B. The investigation focuses on a hotel worker named Mary Wagner, who has both motive and opportunity.
Meanwhile, things aren't going smoothly at home. Cross breaks up with his girlfriend, Jamilla, and a judge awards custody of Alex Jr. to his ex, Christine Johnson, who tells the court that she's worried about her son's safety.
"When he was living in Washington with his father, I know that at least once Alex Jr. was taken out of the house in the middle of the night, for safety's sake. Actually, all of the Cross children were taken out of the house. A serial killer was coming after Alex," she testifies.
Cross isn't the target this time, but that doesn't keep him out of harm's way.
Although the story flows smoothly and has an interesting plot twist, "Mary, Mary" doesn't pack the excitement of previous novels in the Alex Cross series.