An ambitious and dauntingly convoluted noir-derived thriller from the author of The Elephant (1992) and the penitential memoir The Blue Suit (1995). Its protagonist and narrator, Billy McGrath, is a former philosophy student and now head of the LAPD's homicide division. Turned 40, divorced from the woman he still loves (herself a former cop, paralyzed in a shooting incident) and fumbling to be a decent father to his beloved preadolescent daughter, Billy takes very personally his latest case, the brutal torture murder of a local drug dealer's apparently innocent mother (``I thought,'' Billy muses, ``that if I could stop something like this from happening even once . . . then being a police officer would be worthwhile''). Not a chance. While compiling documentary evidence for the ``murder book'' the department keeps on (aforementioned victim) Mae Richards, Billy uncovers a snake's nest of erotic, political, and more generally criminal intrigue (not excluding his own corruptibility) that acquaints him with an O.J. Simpsonlike celebrity acquitted for his wife's murder, an obstetrician burdened by dubious medical (and other) ethics, and a wonderfully cold- blooded goon named Tookie Cross--and mushrooms into several more ingeniously nauseating killings. It's all highly readable, and quite capably plotted--despite embarrassingly close echoes of Chinatown, The Silence of the Lambs, any number of Dashiell Hammett novels, and, most egregiously, Richard Price's vastly superior Clockers. Furthermore, Billy McGrath is immensely likable in his innate decency and credibly human fallibility, but Rayner dilutes this fine characterization by allowing Billy to quote eminent sages at absurdly inappropriate junctures (e.g., while interrogating a suspect: ``Robert, do you know what Jung and William James had to say about human personality?''). Murder Book will make a hell of a TV miniseries, but it's too derivative and miscalculated to be a really effective novel. Not a bad try, but not the big one Rayner was obviously aiming for.