Robert W. Walker, . . Berkley, $21.95 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-425-17963-5

FBI whiz medical examiner Dr. Jessica Coran returns to face a poet–cum–serial killer on the rampage through Philadelphia's bohemian subculture in this lackluster addition to Walker's macabre Instinct series (Killer Instinct, etc.). Jessica must rely not only on her forensic skills, but on interpretations of the Byronesque poetry that the killer leaves on his victims' backs—he poisons them with toxic ink as he writes with an old-fashioned quill pen. Jessica's friend, FBI resident psychicKim Desinor, contributes her psychometric impressions to the investigation, grasping at anything that might help Jessica understand or identify this elusive murderer. The situation is complicated not only by the shaky cooperation of the local police detective and the FBI agent in charge, Jessica's old flame James Parry, but also by the fad of body poetry among students and disaffected youths, making them even more reluctant than usual to aid law enforcement despite the murders. Jessica and her team are also hindered by the neuroses and infighting of the local university's literary faculty, whom they enlist for additional opinions on the poems and later consider as suspects. But the intriguing villain is wasted on this clumsy tale. Despite Walker's too frequent references to Jessica's past triumphs and stellar reputation, there is scant evidence here of investigative acumen or even common sense. Walker seeks—unsuccessfully—to deepen his heroine's character through tipsy love-life chats with Kim, and neglects Jessica's professional development. Worse than the cartoonish characters is the hokey literary exegesis the reader is subjected to as each new body is examined. (May)

Forecast:Perhaps Jessica Coran devotees will overlook these lapses, but neither she nor the author is likely to win new fans with this halfhearted outing.