"The Moon Pool"

by Max McCoy

Leisure Books, a division of Dorchester Publishing Co. Inc.

374 pages; $6.99 paperback

"You know why the skeleton was afraid to cross the road?"

"Because he didn't have the guts."

It's not often you get treated to a Halloween joke in the middle of a thriller about a serial murderer.

But then again, it's not everyday that the author - and probably not so coincidentally the book's main character - just happens to celebrate his birthday on Halloween.

In fact, Max McCoy sealed the book deal for "Moon Pool" during the 13th Annual Horror Convention held last year in Kansas City.

Spooky, huh?

So, after I read Max's book in three-night's time (making sure of course that there was no one hiding under the bed), I couldn't resist bringing my old book column back to life.

In the interest of full disclosure here, Max McCoy isn't just some faceless author with an eye-catching book jacket. McCoy, of Pittsburg, Kan., is a former investigative reporter for the Globe, and I was his editor. That's when I discovered his attention to detail and his ability to weave a story so that reading the news felt like reading a good book.

That's probably because McCoy had already had several book successes, most notably the four books he authored for the Indiana Jones book series.

But about 50 pages into "Moon Pool," I knew this was a whole different story.

The first abduction in McCoy's book takes place on Joplin's Main Street in front of "Soul's Harvest." The attention to detail takes on a special meaning for the local reader, because the story begins in Joplin, makes its way down to Kimberling City and then to Bonne Terre, Mo., and the underwater city that is the backdrop for the horrors committed by Jakob Geiger.

To preserve the beauty of his young, red-haired victims, Geiger stores their bodies in Mineral City, a former mining town covered with water up to 400-feet deep in some areas.

Richard Dahlgren, a private underwater crime-scene investigator, is called in when one of Geiger's first victims is discovered. It doesn't take long before investigators realize that some of Geiger's victims date back to the '60s. But the water's temperature and a solution Geiger injects into the bodies after he kills the women makes them ageless.

Unless, of course, they are brought up out of the water...and then, well, it's not pretty.

It's too late for 39 of Geiger's victims, but Jolene Carter, a Bible college student from Springfield, is still alive and has 28 days to live in an air bell some 400 feet below the surface.

Dahlgren's female counterpart in the book is Grace Matheson, an FBI agent struggling to keep her career afloat (no pun intended). She needs a success if she wants to remain an agent much longer.

McCoy's book can be read two ways. For some, it will be a fast-read thriller with a heart-stopping ending. But others will probably find fascination with the religious subjects explored in the book, including Dahlgren's struggle with his own faith.

One of my favorite scenes is when church members gather in prayer outside the opening to the main shaft.

Dahlgren is talking to one of the congregation members, asking him why he thought the prayers were giving comfort.

"We don't," he said. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. If it were you trapped down in the mine, friend, wouldn't you want your brothers and sisters praying for you?"

"No, I'd want them searching for me," Dahlgren replies.

That answer was classic Max.

McCoy, an advanced underwater scuba diver, said the inspiration for the book came some 13 years ago when he dived the Bonne Terre mine.

"It was gin-clear and several hundred feet below the surface. There was no access to sunlight and I knew at the time it would be a great backdrop for a story."

McCoy's hunch was right. So right in fact that he's already signed the deal for a sequel, "River of Bones." Dahlgren will be back and there will be another cave, as well as victims in jeopardy. But this time around, McCoy promises there won't be a serial killer.

You can't fool me, Max. I'll still check under my bed - just in case.

Carol Stark is the Globe's Metro Editor. She can be reached at cstark@joplinglobe.com or 623-3480, ext. 7278.

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