March 17, 2005, Thursday, FINAL EDITION

Elizabeth George's thriller With No One as Witness is like a sugary Tootsie Pop. You need plenty of time -- and dedication -- before you finally get to the chewy center of this protracted but ultimately juicy serial killer whodunit.

In George's latest, a clever murderer is on the loose in London, killing off boys with few family ties. Most of the victims are minorities, so their deaths elicit minimal press coverage or interest from the police -- until a white kid dies. Suddenly the case lands on New Scotland Yard and frazzled, personality-challenged cop Barbara Havers. This tough anti-fashionista is a stock character straight out of central casting, down to her grubby sneakers and grotty police lingo.

Havers, along with her boss, Thomas Lynley, doggedly investigate the deaths until she figures out what all the kids have in common: their penchant for hanging out at a high-profile but potentially suspect youth center.

Dead boys. Suspicious do-gooders. Dogged cops. You might think that's plenty of material on which to build a solid, seductive thriller. Sadly, George thinks otherwise.

Not content to focus on a few measly murders and the hunt for the elusive killer, she throws in a slew of distractions: a quiet black police officer promoted against his will merely to add diversity to Scotland Yard for the sake of good PR; a pregnant wife dealing with her family's laughable and off-putting demands; an underground sex group engaging in illegal fetishes; and a young girl grappling with her own culture clashes.

Yes, the various subplots help humanize Havers and Lynley, but they also distract from the main story.

If you can slog past all the extraneous details and unnecessary plot contrivances, this thriller, like that frustrating but ultimately satisfying Tootsie Pop, eventually will land you at the juicy center of a story that ends with not one but several shocking twists and an unexpected death.

Copyright 2005 Gannett Company, Inc.