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BRAND RECOGNITION CAN'T HURT

David Baldacci broke into the thriller genre in 1996 with "Absolute Power," which Clint Eastwood subsequently made into a decent rental movie, starring himself and William Goldman's screenplay.

Right out of the gate Baldacci exhibited the envied ability to stay one step ahead of hard-charging readers, keeping the suspense level high while leaving crumbs of plausible fact for them to pick up on the trail to denouement.

Since that debut, the lawyer-turned-storyteller wrote 10 straight New York Times bestsellers, and "Hour Game" has already joined that list on his brand recognition alone.

The achievement makes him a sure moneymaker, giving him peers like Nelson DeMille, Daniel Hagberg, John Grisham, Daniel Silva, Brad Thor and even the apotheosis, Tom Clancy.

Baldacci's lottery-based "The Winner," and twisting "Saving Faith," are other fine hallmarks of creative, sprightly story telling.

"Hour Game" is not.

Asking any writer to produce consecutive, double-digit numbers of bestsellers in such a short time is demented. Trying to pull it off is a time bomb.

No one writes each book better than the last. Over-taxed authors run into idea deficits, or simply have better and lesser ones. Success changes their standards, work ethic and time allowance. But publishers need to feed the maw of public demand so deadlines tighten, profits rule.

"Hour Game" is not a disappointment and has some skip-a-beat moments, but it's not as surprising and adrenaline-hopped as Baldacci's better works. Like a hiker with GPS, the reader knows too easily where the shear cliffs and quicksand lurk and therefore is deprived of the thrill of almost falling into those dangers.

Baldacci reprises his odd couple, former Secret Service agents turned business partners Michelle Maxwell and Sean King, tucked away in their seemingly benign Virginia lake village. (It's called Wrightsburg, but ought to put up welcome signs for "Bloody Lake" or "Inbred" instead.)

They are nonetheless the requisite superstars any thriller needs. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful . . . you get the idea. She's an Olympic rower and kick boxer paired with a savvy investigator wronged by his former federal friends.

The book's pace is near-gallop and the twists and plot turns are worthy of the reader's effort. In the end, however, the plot is a basic whodunit that even (Oh my!) flirts with the old butler cliche.

Blood flows, bodies pile up on the morgue's grim slab and the murderer stays several steps ahead of the dynamic duo. Flirtations come and go, King and Maxwell make improbable escapes from the killer's clutches, while the psycho predictably hides in plain sight.

False trails peter out, suspects as red herrings loom and falter, some ground up by the killer's murderous plow. But in a twist on the law of supply and demand, Baldacci paints himself into this corner: No reader wants to keep track of more than 10-12 major characters without the task becoming onerous and the book morphing into a dust gatherer best for splashing color into a drab book case.

Thus by two-thirds of the way through the book, it's Baldacci's murderer eight, his dynamic duo zero. Like replicating cancer cells, this inherent process of elimination flies out of control, making it too easy for the reader to narrow the list of suspects to just the living.

The book also contains too many frayed devices: high-speed chases, hidden drawers, odd evil-seeming ancillary characters, a dash of titillation and a bunch of wacky suspects nearly all of whom seem crazy or motivated enough to kill. We'd come to expect more.

Of course situating all this in a docile Virginia hill-country town that might go a decade without a homicide gives it an implausible mega-murder rate two or three times per capita what the most violent American city sees in a year. But, we quibble.

The serial murderer on the loose seems to be a fan of that fraternity's more infamous, performing each killing as a sort of allusion to past real-life psychotics like Zodiac, John Wayne Gacey, Green River, and nurse euthanasiast Richard "Mary Martin" Speck.

Imitation is the sincerest form of . . . lethal injection.

And while that is the focus of the book's first half, mere bloodlust eventually gives way to a sticky web of small-town conspiracies. They, however, require long dinners among the principals to afford the reader time to catch up -- via summation dialogues.

Readers came to expect the exceptional from Baldacci and it's unfair of his publishers to demand the unrealistic. Give him some more time between novels. Ten bestsellers in eight years would ring an essayist dry.

Let him recharge and re-inspire himself, and, therefore, us. As with the best of them, his sources of fodder and story-telling supremacy are understandably fading, hourly.

Game

By David Baldacci

Warner Books, 427 pages, $26.95

Stephen W. Bell is a managing editor of The News.