After season one, Showtime’s serial-killer drama Dexter departed radically from the Jeff Lindsay novels that spawned it. Characters left alive in the books died in the show, and vice versa. The show went for a far deeper exploration of its title character, a Miami-based serial killer who only targets serial killers; meanwhile, the book series took a sharp bend toward fantasy, as readers learned that the “Dark Passenger” Dexter credits with his tastes and skills in killing is actually an ancient demonic fragment of the god Moloch. And while the show delved into Dexter’s moral, emotional, and psychological development, as a series of crises and cases made him question himself, the book version of Dexter sailed along happily, as shallowly smug and malicious as ever.

The fourth book in the series, Dexter By Design, changes none of this, though it moves away from fantasy, essentially ignoring book three altogether, and heads back toward more prosaic pulp-fiction grounds: Yet another serial killer is producing grotesque works of art with corpses. When Dexter’s sister Deb is stabbed while investigating, Dexter tortures and kills the man he thinks is responsible, then learns he got the wrong guy. (The fact that this only causes him a brief twinge of regret is just one more sign of how far apart TV Dexter and book Dexter have drifted.) Unfortunately, this puts the real killer on his tracks, and soon, to his immense discomfort, he’s being stalked instead of doing the stalking.

Problem is, throughout Dexter By Design, he never manages to get off that defensive, reactive footing. His enemy outsmarts him at every turn; so does the FBI agent investigating the original killer case, and Deb’s supposedly imbecilic partner. The book is padded out with numerous draggy scenes in which someone interrogates Dexter at length about his suspicious activities, and he stammers or stumbles, bereft of plausible answers or workable schemes, though that doesn’t stop him from mentally talking up his brilliant brain per usual. What little sleuthing there is, other characters do; what little clever planning takes place is out of Dexter’s hands. Even the resolution is an awkward, abrupt machination with Dexter as witness rather than protagonist.

All of which might be tolerable if Lindsay were using this bout of flailing helplessness to delve into a new aspect of Dexter—or if indeed there was any depth to the novel past the surface action. Lindsay is a fairly indifferent writer, prone to clumsy bare-bones action intermittently padded out with equally clumsy swaths of ultra-specific, banal detail, usually about Miami’s lousy traffic, or exactly what Dexter’s eating. His strength has always been in his fascinating characters, his wryly funny tone, and his grotesque imagery. The last element remains in full force here, but in the face of Dexter's fumblings, the jaunty tone is off, and the book often becomes repetitive—for instance in dealing with Deb's illness. When Lindsay choses to populate her hospital with implausibly one-dimensional caricatures, Dexter's would-be humorous complaints about their flatness rings false and even self-indulgent.

And those previously fascinating existing characters are just weakly going through the motions; Dexter as a hapless boob is far less interesting than Dexter the skilled night-stalker. Without a competent, charismatic, larger-than-life protagonist taking up all the empty space, the Dexter series starts to look mighty hollow. As Dexter himself bitches after the pro forma ending, “Normally, I am Dexter on the Spot, at the center of all important action, and to have so much death and destruction all around me and not be a crucial part of it didn’t seem right.” Amen to that.