Tag Archives: Jonathan Kellerman

‘The Museum of Desire,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

During the ensuing decades, no shortage of talk about renewal from politicians. But L.A.’s not a movie town for nothing; people get paid well to act.

Don’t even think about how many Alex Delaware mysteries have been written to date; in the great tradition of literary series, disbelief must be suspended. If you didn’t want to suspend disbelief, why did you shell out for the book?

I’m in a position to shell out for some of my pricier favorite authors now, so at last I’ve read The Museum of Desire by Jonathan Kellerman. It’s as good as I hoped.

L.A. Det. Lt. Milo Sturgis calls out his friend, psychologist Alex Delaware, whenever a murder appears to have a weird psychological angle. This one certainly qualifies. Behind an ugly, vacant mansion in Beverly Hills, a stretch limousine has been found. Inside are four bodies, posed in an obscene tableau. Does Alex have any idea what kind of mind is at work here? Alex has never seen anything like it, but the whole thing has an… artistic feel. In a creepy way.

They start talking to people who attended a recent party at the mansion. And that leads to artists, and (as you’d expect) all kinds of weirdness.

The Museum of Desire delivered all I looked for in an Alex Delaware book – twisted psychology, a challenging puzzle, good character interchanges, a pretty satisfying resolution. I had a good time with it. Serious cautions for language and disturbing scenes.

‘The Wedding Guest,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Reading a new Alex Delaware novel by Jonathan Kellerman is like dropping in on an old friend, whose place is comfortable and nobody expects you to dress up or bring a bottle. It’s welcome and easy.

In The Wedding Guest, Detective Milo Sturgis invites his psychologist friend/consultant, Dr. Delaware, to help him interview witnesses at a murder scene. The scene is a former strip club repurposed as a party venue, where a wedding party had been going on. One of the bridesmaids went to use a washroom most of the other guests didn’t know about, and found a dead body inside. A young and beautiful woman dressed in red, drugged and strangled.

The bride’s family are Los Angeles nouveau-riche, beautiful people with rough edges. The groom’s parents run a veterinary practice and are more down-to-earth, but they have money too – and access to the drug that helped kill the victim. The chief problem at first is that the dead girl seems to be entirely off the grid – no identification, no police record, and nobody at the wedding will admit to knowing her.

Putting a name on her takes hard work, but when it’s done there’s still the question of discovering why she was there that night, and who among those present would have a reason to end her life.

I thought the climax was a little perfunctory, but it was all about the ride anyway. The Wedding Guest could have been three times as long and I’d have enjoyed it all the way through. I particularly liked the non-stereotyped characters. Cautions for language and adult themes. Recommended, as is the entire Alex Delaware series.

‘Night Moves,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Night Moves

The fingers she offered were flash-frozen shoestring potatoes.

There’s hardly any point in me reviewing the latest Alex Delaware mystery by Jonathan Kellerman. I like the series immensely, and the books are uniformly excellent. Night Moves is no exception, though I’ll admit I did get lost in places.

Chet Corvin lives in an upscale suburb of Los Angeles with his wife and two children. He’s a braggart, and pushy, which works for him at his job, but makes him a pain to anyone who knows him. He’s outraged when he and his family come home from a night out to find a dead body in his den. The victim wasn’t killed there – there’s no blood splattered around – but his face has been obliterated by a shotgun blast and his hands have been cut off.

Det. Lt. Milo Sturgis catches the case, and he again brings in his friend Alex Delaware, psychologist, as a consultant. The Corvin family is a study – cold wife, withdrawn teenaged daughter, rebellious son. There’s also a weird next-door neighbor – an older, unsocial artist who was once a famous underground cartoonist, back in the hippie era. His classic work is pretty creepy; Milo would definitely like to talk to him, but he won’t even answer the door.

One lead after another turns into a dead end. As Alex and Milo manage to learn one after another hard-won fact, bodies pile up and they begin to uncover the tracks of a complex, improbable, and shocking serial killer.

What I love most about the Alex Delaware books is his treatment of the characters. Author Kellerman loves to explode our preconceptions. Again and again we are introduced to people who invite snap judgment, but prove on closer acquaintance to be complex and full of surprises. I did kind of lose track of the multiple plot threads this time around – but that may just be a function of me getting old.

Recommended, for older teens and up. Cautions for the usual. Good stuff.


Marcus Selmer photograph

The wonderful Mirabilis.ca shares a link to information on the Dano-Norwegian photographer Marcus Selmer, who left remarkable images of 19th Century Norwegian peasants.

And Dave Lull passes on news about a planned TV series based on Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis books.

I expect they’ll ruin it by making Milo a militant gay, but the news is interesting anyway.

‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Heartbreak Hotel

I don’t know how Jonathan Kellerman does it. The premise of his Alex Delaware novels is pretty implausible – child psychologist works as consultant for the L.A. Police Department, and gets closely involved in a long series of homicide cases at the request of his friend, Detective Lt. Milo Sturgis (the least gay homosexual in literature). But not only does Kellerman make it work, he keeps the series fresh and exciting.

In Heartbreak Hotel, Alex receives a call from Thalia Mars, an elderly lady (nearing 100, he learns) who lives in a private cottage at a “hotel” which is actually a recovery facility for cosmetic surgery patients. She offers a high retainer for a little of his time, but he goes to see her mostly out of curiosity. A charming lady, she asks him whether he believes there’s such a thing as a criminal personality. Then she promises to tell him something of her story when he returns the next day.

But there is no second appointment. Overnight Thalia is murdered. Alex calls Milo, and Milo catches the case.

Thalia is a woman of mystery. She has hid her past, and the sources of her wealth, well. But Alex and Milo go to work following clues to old gangland crimes from more than a half century in the past, to thwart a conspiracy of “criminal personalities” who think Thalia owed them something. The climax is shocking, and the anticlimax more shocking still, in its own way.

I loved Heartbreak Hotel. Pure mystery reading pleasure. Highly recommended, with cautions for adult themes and (probably, though I didn’t actually notice) language.

‘Breakdown,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

The big problem with a successful, ongoing fiction series is self-repetition. The template for Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels is pretty well established. Dr. Delaware, successful child psychologist, gets a call from his police detective buddy Milo Sturgis (overweight, conservative, and “gay”), who asks him to advise him on some case in progress. Alex happily cooperates, and together they uncover motive, means, and opportunity. (In real life, of course, Alex would never be allowed to meddle in police work that way, and defense lawyers would have a heyday with his involvement. But in the real world both Alex and Milo would be long retired by now, so why mess with success?).

In Breakdown, the latest in the series, author Kellerman jiggers the template a little. This time it’s Alex who asks for Milo’s help in a case of his own. Some years ago, he was called in to consult on the welfare of a child at risk. The little boy’s mother was an actress on a TV sitcom. She had personality disorders, but seemed to be functioning all right as a mother, and Alex found her son highly intelligent but otherwise normal.

Now he gets a call from a mental health worker. The actress, long out of work, has been found living on the streets, psychotic. Her primary psychologist is dead, so Alex is now the health care professional of record on the file. Alex talks to the former actress, being held in a ridiculous government-funded facility (which gives the author a chance to make some pointed comments on our current mental health system). She’s almost completely psychotic now. There seems to be no record that she ever had a child, and Alex, driven by concern and guilt, enlists Milo in trying to uncover the actress’s past, to see what happened to the boy.

What they uncover is a dark family secret and a string of unsolved murders going back decades.

I always enjoy the Alex Delaware books, and this one pleased me particularly. I love cold case stories, and Breakdown was a fascinating one.

‘The Murderer’s Daughter,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Tragic; could you blame a boy for going bad? You sure could. Turning the tale over and over, Grace found herself growing steely. She knew all about rejection and loss, deep wounds of the soul that required psychic excavation and cauterization, the acid wash of self-examination. Life could be a horror. No excuse.

It occurred me after I finished reading Jonathan Kellerman’s The Murderer’s Daughter that the heroine could be described as a sort of American version of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, main character of his “The Girl” novels, but without the annoying Marxist themes. I’m OK with that. Grace Blades is a vivid character. I generally avoid novels with female protagonists because I can’t identify with them, but I was all in for Grace from the first paragraph.

Grace Blades (isn’t that a great name?) is a genius, off the charts, and a world-renowned clinical psychologist. She is especially famous for her successful work with trauma victims. Yet oddly, her own psychological world is rather barren.

Grace was born to a neglectful, abusive home, and orphaned at an early age. After that she entered the foster care system, until she found a loving home with a couple who cared for her and nurtured her intellectual gifts. Since their deaths, Grace has kept other people at a distance, confining her sex life to occasional anonymous encounters with strangers.

But one day she opens her office door to a new patient, and sees before her a man she had a tryst with just the night before. She tries to salvage the session, but the man flees at last, hinting at family guilt and something about atonement.

Soon Grace learns that this man was not in fact a stranger at all, but a fellow witness to the most traumatic event of her life. And now Grace is in danger from the person that man feared.

Grace does not take danger passively. Her rule is to go on the offensive. And so she does.

The Murderer’s Daughter is quite unlike Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels. Alex is well-adjusted, and has a productive relationship with the police. Grace Blades is more like Batman, a law unto herself, a genius with fighting skills who takes the law into her own hands.

Morally, I disapprove. As a reader, I loved this book. Cautions for language, sex, and violence.

‘Guilt,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Another Alex Delaware novel from Jonathan Kellerman, another enjoyable reading experience. The series is long established now, and few surprises are to be expected, except perhaps in terms of whodunnit. But the virtues of the books are consistent. Good main characters, interesting, layered secondary characters. And a studied avoidance of cheap shots at almost anybody, including conservative Christians.

In Guilt, Alex and his gay cop friend, Milo Sturgis, are called to a house where a tree has been uprooted in a storm. Under its roots was found a metal box, and in the box the carefully wrapped skeleton of a baby. A newspaper in the box identifies the burial as from 1951.

Then, in a nearby park, another, newer baby skeleton is found, as well as the body of a young woman, a girl from Oregon who worked as a nanny. Suspicion soon points to an A-list celebrity couple raising their brood of adopted children in seclusion on a heavily guarded estate. It’s easy to imagine what might have happened.

But it’s not as simple as that.

The great joy of a Kellerman novel, novels written by a psychologist about a psychologist, is how the characters reveal themselves, in a sort of psychic undressing. A shallow expectant mother is revealed to be so frightened about the future that she’s having trouble coping. A celebrity turns out to be entirely different than one would expect – or is it all just an act at the end? Nothing interests me like complex human personalities, and that’s where Kellerman excels.

There are some Christian fundamentalists in this one, and Kellerman treats them with his customary decency. An Oregon evangelical pastor who wouldn’t impose his “personal” views about homosexuality on his parishioners seems a bit of a stretch, but it’s a generous stretch by Kellerman’s lights, so I take it in the spirit intended.

Recommended, with the usual caveats.

Victims, by Jonathan Kellerman

Vita Berlin was the nastiest woman in the neighborhood. She complained about everything, was rude to everyone, and pushed people around at the first sign of weakness. Still – as even the father of a child with cancer, whom she’d publicly berated, admits – nobody deserves to have their neck broken and be disemboweled in their own apartment.

So begins Victims, another in Jonathan Kellerman’s long-running Alex Delaware mystery series. Alex is a child psychologist, but long ago he became Detective Lt. Milo Sturgis’ go-to expert whenever a psycho murder shows up. Which this most definitely is, because it’s soon followed by the murders of a mild-mannered accountant, a young married couple, and a homeless man, all killed and mutilated in about the same way. No connection between the victims seems apparent.

There are similar themes here to Michael Connelly’s recent book, The Drop, which I reviewed the other day. Both stories deal with the question of evil, and how it comes to exist in human beings. There’s no answer to that question in this world, of course (and even in theology we’re left with a lot unanswered), but there’s plenty of room for both empathy and a sense of justice, though they sometimes have to wrestle each other. Victims ended on an unusually downbeat note, but it was entirely appropriate, and (I thought) rather moving.

Highly recommended, with the usual cautions for language and adult subject matter.

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.

Evidence, by Jonathan Kellerman

Evidence Kellerman

You’re probably tired of my reviews of paperback mysteries, especially ones by the small string of my favorite authors, among whom Jonathan Kellerman is not least. So this will be more an appreciation than a review.

In brief, Evidence is a well-crafted, compelling police procedural, in which psychologist Alex Delaware is mostly along for the ride, as his buddy Detective Milo Sturgis investigates the murder of a couple, found posed in a sexual position, in an unfinished beachside mansion. The investigation leads to a secretive, extremist environmentalist plot.

Much of my enjoyment of this book was strictly partisan and ideological. I don’t know Kellerman’s politics, but he throws conservatives some red meat. First of all, he balances the fact that Det. Sturgis is gay (the least “gay” man possible, in terms of stereotypes), by throwing in Det. Sean Binchy, an open evangelical. Sean has a small part in the book, but he’s smart, decent and hard-working.

Note to Hollywood—I accept token characters. I embrace them. I’m shamelessly gullible in this regard.

Also, the things said in this book about certain elements (certainly not the majority) of the environmentalist movement shocked me. If green terrorism is indeed as common and deadly as this story suggests, the press has a lot of covering up to answer for. The enviro-nuts in Evidence act the way pro-lifers usually act in Hollywood movies and TV shows. Which is saying, pretty darn bad.

So I had a great time with Evidence. Recommended, with the usual caveats for language and adult subject matter.

True Detectives, by Jonathan Kellerman

Writing a successful series character can (or so they tell me) be a trial (albeit a profitable one) for an author. There’s an inherent problem with series characters. Generally in fiction, one of an author’s chief purposes is to dramatize personal change. A character grows through his experiences in the story. He makes difficult and costly choices and grows a bit as a human being. This gives the story a point, and satisfies the reader.

But series characters can’t have life-changing experiences with every story. Nobody changes that much in their lifetime, and if they did, they’d soon cease to be the characters readers have fallen in love with.

So series authors like to stretch themselves now and then. Sometimes they’ll write one-offs. And sometimes they’ll create new series characters.

Jonathan Kellerman, author of the Alex Delaware psychological mysteries, has chosen the second course with his latest in paperback, True Detectives. He’s taken two characters he introduced in his last Alex Delaware book and given them their own story. In my opinion, they’re worth the trouble. Continue reading True Detectives, by Jonathan Kellerman

Trouble, by Jesse Kellerman

I know you’ll all be relieved to read a review written by me which isn’t about a Dean Koontz novel. No, no. The looks on your faces are all the thanks I need.

Trouble is an extremely impressive thriller written by a young novelist. I found it gripping, frightening, and engaging. The writing was elegant and crisp, the characters real and sympathetic, and often very funny.

And yet, in the end, I found it unsatisfying.

The concept is promising. It’s the old “Fatal Attraction” scenario—the hero gets sexually involved with a woman who turns out to be a psychopath. The twist in Trouble is that the woman doesn’t want to hurt the hero. She wants him to hurt her.

The main character is Jonah Stem. He’s a medical student in his third year—that purgatorial year when you work long hours, get treated like a beast of burden, and subsist on a couple hours of sleep a night—in a Manhattan hospital. Twice a month he takes the train to visit his former girlfriend, who is sliding into schizophrenia, to help her father with her care.

Yet he’s not too beaten down to get involved when, on his way home from work one night, he sees a large homeless man standing with a knife over a young woman. He jumps in to protect her, and when it’s all over the attacker is dead, and Jonah is a tabloid hero.

It doesn’t hurt that the girl is extremely cute.

Eventually they bump into each other again, and there are sparks, and they do what modern young people are expected to do. (I should probably note here that there’s a fair amount of sex in this book, some of it pretty kinky.)

But gradually it becomes clear that this woman has something more wrong with her than simple loose morals. She wants to be hurt. She demands that Jonah hurt her. She is convinced that Jonah has committed himself to an “art project” with her, and she’s utterly shameless in manipulating and threatening him, and those around him, to get his cooperation.

And then it gets worse.

If a story like this could have been written (it couldn’t) back in the 1950s (for instance) there would have been an implicit moral lesson. “Don’t have sex with people you’ve just met,” or even, “Don’t have sex with someone you’re not married to.”

I see no sign of a lesson of any kind in Trouble, though. Not that all stories have to have explicitly stated morals. But in a classic story the hero is expected to at least learn something from his ordeal. In this book, the hero seems to be pretty much unchanged in the end by the horrible events he experiences. The only lesson the story seems to teach is that it’s dangerous to help people. But even that (bad) lesson doesn’t seem to be the point here. I guess the point is that stuff happens, and sometimes it gets really intense, you know?

Jesse Kellerman is the son of two bestselling mystery novelists, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. I’m a big fan of his dad’s and not much of a fan of his mother’s. Jesse didn’t need their help to get published, though, I suspect. He’s a real talent, and a very accomplished storyteller. Expect big things from him.

I just hope he can find a way to write stories with something at stake in them.

Nihilist kitsch and villages

I came up with something in the comments on my Wednesday post, and I liked it so well I’ll repeat it here, for the sake of those of you who don’t read comments.

It occurs to me that much of what passes for art today is a kind of “nihilist kitsch.” You know what kitsch is. It’s sentimental or cutesy art produced on the cheap for people without much taste. Black velvet paintings are kitsch. Pictures of Jesus with moving eyes that seem to follow you around the room are kitsch. Garden ornaments that depict a fat guy leaning over so that all you can see is his legs, his butt and his butt crack above his jeans, are kitsch.

When a little old lady, not very bright but devout, looks at her 3-D Jesus portrait, she sees it as very beautiful. This is not because it’s really beautiful (it’s actually pretty disturbing), but it’s lovely to her because she associates it with her sincere love for Jesus.

I think the pleasure an art connoisseur feels when he/she looks at a piece of art consisting of blood or urine or dung or garbage is a reverse form of kitsch. The viewer knows that what he or she is looking at is in no sense beautiful. But he/she enjoys it and praises it because it represents an assault on things that he/she hates.

So we’ve got the kitsch of love and the kitsch of hate. Both of them are kitsch.

But I know which one I prefer.

A little more about Jonathan Kellerman’s nonfiction book, Savage Spawn.

It’s a frightening book about children who seem to be born bad, and who can’t seem to be stopped except by death or lifelong incarceration.

Kellerman’s opinion (and he admits he can’t prove it) is that the cause is a combination of genetics and nurture. Some kids may be genetically designed for psychopathy, but a good upbringing might prevent it.

So how do we as a society intervene to rescue these marginal kids before bad environments send them on the road to something like Columbine?

Kellerman has a number of suggestions, which he admits are generally utopian. I don’t agree with all of them (especially the one that would make it a crime to teach a child to use firearms). Many of them make sense. None of them seem likely.

The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve reached a cultural impasse. If we could give the government new powers to intervene radically in families, it might be worth it (if the power could be limited), if we had confidence that the government would use that power wisely. Unfortunately, “government” and “wisdom” are for the most part mutually exclusive terms.

My opinion is that the kind of radical evil in children that we see today is mostly a new thing, and it comes from the way society has changed. In the past most people lived in small, homogeneous communities—villages or tribes where everybody believed the same things, valued the same things, and were intimately involved in each other’s lives. The kids were monitored all the time, by the whole community.

When Hillary Clinton said “It takes a village to raise a child,” she was being disingenuous. She was right about the village, but the new-style village she wants is not a village but a bureaucracy (I’ve blogged about this before).

I think people need close-knit networks of likeminded relatives and neighbors, all gathered in the same place, to raise children in the most healthy way. But today we value diversity and individuality, which means a terrible, dangerous environment for children.

Will we figure out a new way to build villages? I hope so. But I don’t know how we’ll do it.

I’ll be off the blog for a couple days now. My relative Trygve from Norway will be in town, and I’ll be giving him the grand tour. I’ll tell you about it when it’s over.

Prometheus, bounder

Today it rained. This is a good thing, just here and just now. We’ve had it mighty dry for a spell in these here parts. I think a lot of farmers got a drink too, which is, needless to say, a lot more important than the state of my lawn.

I picked up a book called Savage Spawn, by Jonathan Kellerman, the mystery writer. I’ve already told you how much I enjoy his novels, so I was interested to check out this book, which is not fiction but a book of popular psychology about children who become cold-blooded criminals.

I’ll probably say more about his conclusions tomorrow, but today I want to quote a passage that impressed me:

Psychiatrist Thomas Millar, in an eloquent essay titled “The Age of Passion Man,” written nearly two decades ago, decried the tendency of contemporary Western society to glamorize hedonism and antisocial behavior, and to confuse psychopathy, which he regards as a form of malignant childishness, with heroism….

Confusing creativity with morality and psychopathic rebelliousness with social liberation led Norman Mailer to predict that psychopaths would turn out to be the saviors of society. Mailer was as terribly wrong about that as he was when he worked hard to spring career criminal Jack Henry Abbott from prison. Shortly after his release, Abbott murdered an innocent man. Oops. What impressed Mailer were Abbott’s writings, summarized in a thin book titled In the Belly of the Beast. A coolheaded review of this volume nearly two decades later reveals it to be a crude, nasty, sophomoric collection of self-justifying diatribes—prototypical psychopathy.

Muddled thinking about evil is by no means limited to the political left. Sex murderer Herbert Smith, sentenced to execution for raping and bludgeoning a fifteen-year-old girl to death with a baseball bat, was able to turn a phrase with some skill, and he conned William Buckley into thinking he was innocent. Buckley campaigned to get Smith out of prison, finally succeeding in 1971, whereupon Smith promptly and viciously attacked another woman. Smith then admitted that he’d been guilty of the first murder. Oops again.

Kellerman identifies here what I consider a major problem in our culture today. Beginning in the days of the Romantic Movement, we began to see the titanic, rebellious, Promethean social rebel (like Shelley or Byron) as the hero, the one who would free us all from Rousseau’s chains, who would liberate us all to become the gods and goddesses we were born to be. The parallel Romantic current, the more Christian and conventionally moral Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge, found few followers. That strain was less sexy. It lacked the sweetness of forbidden fruit, and was much harder work.

Thus we came to believe, first of all, that great, creative souls must always reject conventional morality. Further down the slope we came to believe that whatever was socially transgressive must by definition be a work of genius.

This has given people with artistic pretensions a wonderful excuse to live lives of selfishness and self-destruction.

It has also been responsible for a whole lot of lousy art.