Tag Archives: Savage Spawn

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.

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.