Mystery, by Jonathan Kellerman

Most detective series novels require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief (and the more you know about real police work, the more is required). Fans (like me) of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series are expected to believe that a Los Angeles psychologist would spend a large part of his free time helping a police detective friend solve crimes, and that the department would smile on the arrangement. But hey, the formula’s in place, it works, why rattle the scenery flats?

The title of Mystery is not a desperate, “I’ve run out of titles” reference to the book’s genre, but the name of the murder victim, a high end prostitute who operated under that name. By pure chance, Alex and his girlfriend Robin, out drinking the night before the murder, saw her sitting alone in a hotel bar, and wondered about the elegant-looking girl who seemed to be waiting for someone who never showed up. The next time Alex sees her is when his shlumpy homosexual detective friend, Milo Sturgis, asks him to come and see the murder scene, where her body has been dumped near a road in the Hollywood Hills. They still don’t know who she is, though, and further investigations lead them to a wealthy, extremely dysfunctional family with a lot of secrets.

I marvel at Kellerman’s ability to keep his formula fresh. What makes this book sing is the author’s profound psychological insight. A particular pleasure this time out is a sub-plot involving a former madame who is dying of cancer and wants Alex’s help in preparing her six-year-old son for her death. The madame’s character is wonderfully complex, at once acutely narcissistic and genuinely maternal. She comes off the page as a fully-rounded, living person, pathetic, offensive and (in some ways) admirable.

There was an oblique echo (not explicitly spelled out) of Kellerman’s belief, stated in his nonfiction book, Savage Spawn, that it’s unhealthy to teach children to use guns. I consider that entirely wrong, but he didn’t preach about it.

Recommended, with the usual cautions for language, violence, and sexual themes.

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