“Mystery” (2011) and “Time Bomb” (1990), by Jonathan Kellerman

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mysteryI’ve been reading Jonathan Kellerman’s Los Angeles-set crime series based on the character of child psychologist Alex Delaware ever since I stumbled across the first in the now 30-strong series when I was an undergraduate student at the University of York. That was a very long time ago indeed, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge – and equally a lot of words have flowed from Kellerman’s pen in the meantime.

Where once I would be an avid reader of the latest Delaware thriller, I’ve fallen behind with the series in recent years and the book I just got around to reading over the New Year – Mystery – was actually released in 2011. In it, Alex investigates the death of a young woman after it turns out he and his partner Robin were among the last people to see her alive at a downtown bar the previous evening. The trail leads to a high-end online dating site, interviews with a number of people who may or may not be involved, and another dead body turning up in LA scrubland before things are wrapped up.

What surprised me is how quickly I read the book: it took only a couple of days, which for me nowadays is blazingly fast. I enjoyed it well enough – Kellerman always has an interesting insight and a lightness of touch with his handling of the descriptions of the various characters we meet – but it nonetheless felt rather insubstantial. The mystery at the heart of Mystery is barely one layer deep and the investigation itself is very linear, one meeting leading to another until the culprit gradually emerges as if by natural osmosis from the surroundings. I’ve had a similar unfulfilled feeling after several of the most recent Alex Delaware novels, and I had begin to wonder if perhaps I’d simply wearied of the author and his books after so many years – or alternatively whether these latest offerings were genuinely different in quality from the earlier works that had captured my interest and earned my enduring loyalty.

That sent me back to pick out an old copy of one of Kellerman’s early Delaware books, the 1990 novel Time Bomb, which was the fifth outing for the character. In this story, Delaware is called in to offer post-trauma counselling to young children after a shooting at a LA elementary school. This soon involves him in a bitter wrangle between local politicians, and then he’s approached by the would-be sniper’s father to undertake a psychological autopsy of the perpetrator which sends Delaware down a trail that exposes decades of ugly political extremism both national and international and puts Delaware himself at extreme physical risk.

timebombIn contrast to Mystery it’s a long read – the listed page count is almost twice that of the later book – but what really struck me about Time Bomb is how much time Kellerman must have spent plotting this complex tale, and the sheer amount of historical research it much have required to put together. It’s clear that the author cared very deeply about the subject matter, and it shows in the quality of the book – which would make for a very strong mini-series, or at a pinch a long and somewhat intricate film thanks to its twists and turns, surprise developments, and frustrations caused by key witnesses turning up dead or missing along the way. By contrast, Mystery feels bolted together from some disapproving tabloid headlines about online sex sites together with a standard old fashioned film noir murder plot. Moreover there’s little sense of actual achievement when the crime is eventually solved. Told at a leisurely pace, it would probably make for an unremarkable instalment of a formulaic police procedural but to be honest it would likely struggle to fill the 42 minutes of a standard episode of Law and Order or Castle.

In truth Delaware was only ever really a too-nice in-book avatar for Kellerman to play with, but in his recent books the author seems to have become rather uninspired by or perhaps simply rather bored with the character altogether. Back in Time Bomb, Delaware had just ended one relationship and found himself feeling his way into another; there was even a certain edginess in his dealings with his partner-in-crime-solving, the Columbo-esque Detective Lieutenant Milo Sturgis, a gay cop at a time of pervasive homophobia in the LAPD. But by the time we get to Mystery, Delaware is in a settled long-time relationship that’s not been further developed in a decade, and he and Milo are like a comfortable pair of old slippers in whose company it’s pleasant and fairly undemanding to spend time in. Nothing changes for Delaware in the course of the story and at no time does it feel like he’s remotely sticking his neck out; it’s just another day in LA.

An author of Kellerman’s calibre is hardly likely to just be churning out a book a year for the pay cheque. Perhaps he’s carrying on doing it to avoid disappointing those loyal fans of the series such as myself who would be rather bereft without another Alex Delaware novel to look forward to each year; or perhaps his publishers and editors have sat him down and told him that he needs to just write simple, undemanding fare because that’s what tests best with the demographic focus groups and which sells the most copies at the airport every summer. If the latter is the case then I fear they’re doing Kellerman a disservice, because he’s a better writer than that; they’re probably the same executives who thought that the Delaware books needed an umbrella title and came up with the hilariously misfitting ‘Crime Reader’ sobriquet that had long time fans of the books rolling our eyes in despair.

Hopefully the direction of the series is not because Kellerman has simply lost interest in Delaware. That would be a shame, because in many ways Kellerman is a better writer now than he was back in 1990, no doubt thanks to the years of experience writing bestsellers. For example, in Time Bomb there seems no character or location too small or insignificant that doesn’t need a full-blown description to be constructed and handed down when they first appear. As good as these passages are, they can get a little wearing and repetitive after a while; however by the time we get to Mystery Kellerman has developed a more finely-tuned sense of where and when to use such descriptions, while at the same time improving on his already considerable flair and flourish at capturing the sense of the subject through some sharp and vivid turns of phrase.

I’m hoping that Kellerman (and Delaware) aren’t now just cruising their way into retirement, as I really would miss them. But the lack of substance to the recent plots is becoming an increasingly dismaying factor to me, and I’m even wondering whether I’ll now go on to read any of the ones that follow Mystery or if I will just call it a day and go back to rereading the early instalments instead. It’s a bit odd to read Time Bomb and realise that no one has cell phones (in fact a lot of the jeopardy in that story arises from the fact that Sturgis is unreachable at a key moment) and that the ubiquitous availability of research information to be found on the Internet is absent leaving Alex’s noodling through various proprietary private databases that much more impressive, but such details don’t harm the essentially timeless nature of the stories. It means I can continue to fully enjoy those early novels with the minimum of allowances and still be completely gripped and intrigued by them, in exactly the way that Mystery and its more recent siblings so conspicuously failed to.

Jonathan Kellerman’s books are published in paperback by Headline and are available from all good bookstores and online retailers. They are also available as e-books from iBooks and Amazon. The first three are “When the Bough Breaks”, “Blood Test” and “Over The Edge” and are highly recommended. They’re followed by “Silent Partner” and “Time Bomb”. “Mystery” is number 26 in the series since when the latest entries have been “Victims”, “Guilt”, “Killer” and “Motive”.

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