Shifting ably to fiction, true crime specialist Walter (In Contempt; Every Knee Shall Bow), turns out a strong, character-driven serial-killer thriller. In Spokane, Wash., a handful of homicide investigators watch helplessly as one prostitute after another is found murdered in a downtown park. Sgt. Alan Dupree, an old-style cop who eschews modern police investigative methods like criminal profiling, initially leads the team. As the so-called Southbank Killer's death toll rises, Dupree is replaced by Chris Spivey, an arrogant upstart with great academic credentials but no street savvy. Spivey brings in two nationally known serial-killer profilers, who waste precious time belittling each other personally and professionally while drawing up what are essentially boilerplate profiles. Spivey also recruits Det. Caroline Mabry, a hard-working investigator who manages to rise above squad-room politics and disagreements about how the case should be handled. Mabry is a complex character, suffering from a raft of personal problems as well as career doubts. She and Dupree finally uncover evidence that the whole investigation has been built on a faulty premise. Unlike many entries in the serial killer category, Walter's stays fresh by placing character development above shock value. His focus is on the human side of police work, not on the killer and his ghoulish behavior. (Feb.) Forecasts: A rave endorsement from James Patterson, who's not nearly as blurb-happy as is, say, Stephen King, could go a ways in making readers take notice of this fine first novel.