Doctor turns to Bible to solve crime in slick sci-fi Witness

Joseph Telushkin and Allen Estrin are television writers who have collaborated on scripts for Emmy Award-winning shows such as “The Practice,” “Boston Public” and “Touched by an Angel.”

Their novel, “Heaven’s Witness,” is a book that has the feel — for good and for bad — of contemporary television: fast-paced, frightening, violent, thought-provoking and, at times, moving.

Yet, the science fiction novel is not as satisfying as the classics of television’s Golden Age: Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” being a prime example and an obvious influence on “Heaven’s Witness.”

Serling created characters that have stayed with us for more than 40 years. His defeated prizefighters, demonic children, emotionally lost advertising executives, and alcoholic dreamers all captured some essence of post-World War II America. They conveyed our melancholy despite our worldly success, our enduring prejudices despite gains in civil rights and, in “Deaths-Head Revisited,” the eternal message of the Holocaust — to never forget.

The authors are trying for “Twilight Zone” effects, but don’t quite succeed.

The plot revolves around the seeming reincarnation of a murdered high school girl, an aspiring actress, who was brutally killed in Malibu in 1970. The girl, named Beverly Caspar, has been “reborn” in Robin Norris, a young professional actress who in the Los Angeles of the present begins to experience her former life.

The hero is a young psychiatrist, Dr. Jordan Geller, who has recently lost his fiancée to a tragic death. Geller considers himself a rationalist yet becomes convinced that Robin is the reincarnation of Beverly.

Geller comes to believe that what Robin has told him about her “former life” is true and could help police capture the murderer still at large. He must decide whether to expose himself to ridicule by going to the authorities with evidence based upon his newfound belief in reincarnation, or save his career by remaining silent. He goes to the Old Testament for guidance.

“He prayed for an answer. An answer came a few hours later in a book that had been providing answers to people long before anyone heard of Sigmund Freud.”

Geller’s Judaism tells him there is no higher duty than to save an innocent life.

Telushkin and Estrin are absorbed with the necessity of reconciliation, a noble theme. The murdered high school student had unresolved issues with her mother. And Geller feels guilt about his fiancée, who was run down by a drunk driver, following their quarrel.

Justice, too, is taken up in “Heaven’s Witness.” The serial killer who preys on young women is more than a sick man. He is a monster, and the novel argues that the only justice for such a man is death.

“Heaven’s Witness” is a fast and exciting read. And parts are touching: the meeting of the “reincarnated” Robin with Beverly’s elderly mother, the story of Geller’s father before and after the Holocaust, the young doctor’s guilt.

Yet the novel’s slickness and stereotypical characterizations, especially of the police officers, detract from the overall themes and argument. And it ends a little too conveniently.

“Heaven’s Witness” has power — Telushkin and Estrin are talented writers with the ability to write books and teleplays that cut as deeply as Serling’s once did.

But to do so would mean to give up the ideas of happy endings and solutions to all problems and to embrace tragedy itself.

“Heaven’s Witness” by Joseph Telushkin and Allen Estrin (467 pages, Toby Press, $19.95).