Why is Sandford's new Kidd-series novel, The Empress File (p. 120; written under his real name of John Camp), so frazzled? Maybe because this increasingly popular author is putting his finest energies into his best-selling Lucas Davenport series (Rules of Prey, 1989; Shadow Prey, 1990)--as evidenced by this strong and satisfying entry, in which the Minneapolis homicide cop tangles with two memorable psycho-killers. The killers are coldhearted burn-deformed actor Carlo Druze and handsome pill-crazed pathologist Michael Bekker, who lures Druze into a murder trade a la Strangers on a Train: Bekker's wife for Druze's boss. The novel opens with Druze sneaking into Bekker's house to slice Stephanie Bekker and (at Bekker's insistence) to mutilate her eyes--but it turns out that Stephanie has a lover, who sees Druze, then runs away. Who is he? And why the eye mutilation? These questions plague moody, perennially unhappy Davenport as he deals with the case, and with his own demons of depression. Though from the start suspecting Bekker (whose drug-soaked soliloquies, and hidden obsession with observing dying patients' eyes at the moment of death, cast him as an unusually fascinating villain), Davenport can't figure out the mad M.D.'s connection to the second victim, Druze's boss, also found with punched-out eyes. So when the mysterious eyewitness begins feeding anonymous clues about a deformed killer, and then a third victim--an innocent mistakenly identified by Druze as the eyewitness--surfaces, Davenport looks elsewhere. His search brings him to Druze's theater company and to sexy actress Cassie Lasch, who becomes Davenport's lover and (inevitably in Sandford's dark universe) Bekker's final victim--along with Druze, whom Bekker double-crosses. In a brutal finale, a semi-deranged Davenport, throwing his cop-career away, extracts a savage revenge upon Bekker--a revenge that leads to a last-page revelation of the eyewitness's surprising identity. Atmospheric, suspenseful, and gripping from start to finish.