Friday, May 31, 2019

When the Bough Breaks

When the Bough Breaks
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

I recently tried the waters of the Alex Delaware series of crime thrillers by plunging in at the deep end with Night Moves, the 33rd of soon to be 35 novels. I then sensibly paddled back to where I should have entered with this first book, alternately titled Shrunken Heads. Not that I would recommend taking it in this order, I learned one thing by doing so: that the crime-solving partnership between child psychologist Alex and Los Angeles police detective Milo Sturgis is going to last and last, as will Alex's relationship with (in this book) girlfriend Robin. They're going to solve a lot of crimes together. And though this book is only indirectly about the crime that brought them together, the repercussions of that case echo throughout their maiden voyage as unlikely co-sleuths.

How many ways are they an unlikely pair? To start with, one is gay and the other isn't. One of them dresses to kill and drives a Cadillac Seville, which was quite the thing back in 1985; the other always looks like he woke up in what he's wearing, and is lucky if he has a car at all. One is on the LAPD payroll, and the other is only an unpaid consultant. One of them has a master's degree in literature, while the other took early retirement from a career in clinical psychology after treating the victims of a child molester who chose Alex's office for the scene of his suicide. Their current case brings them together because a small girl seems to be the only witness to the vicious murder of a couple in the apartment across the way.

But then the trail of clues – including a third dead body – leads them to ask impertinent questions of a judge, a leading psychiatrist and a highly respected religious charity. Unsurprisingly, the Powers That Be take them off the case. Does that stop them? Of course not. In fact, Alex pursues his side of the investigation with an independence that I doubt Milo will allow in future installments. It puts him in terrible danger. It leads him to discover a network of monsters preying on children almost in plain sight, with a dark history dating back to an elite college and an even more elite island. They're the kind of places that seem to breed icky secrets, and this kind won't be exposed without the shedding of blood.

As an opening move in a long game, this is a pretty strong book. The psychological mystery is dark and disturbing. The crime thriller part is shockingly violent. Early Alex Delaware is a character full of potential for development, not just as a crime-solving partner but also as a complex individual with refined taste, keen intellect and interesting relationships. I'd like to say that if I had read this book in 1985, I would have foreseen what a strong series would grow out of it. But I was just 13 at the time, and I was more interested in Stephen King kind of stuff. The long wait gave me the pleasure of experiencing the world of 1985 again as a nostalgic tourist.

Also, the fact that I read it within weeks of a Clay Edison novel, co-authored by Jonathan Kellerman and his son Jesse, allowed me to detect a story shape that the two books (written decades apart) have in common – carnage in California leads to unsettling discoveries at an off-kilter school farther north. Maybe I'm weird to perceive a family resemblance there; I wonder what Alex Delaware would say about the sense of familiarity that led me to make that connection. Where those discoveries led, however, differed from one book to another. I'm intrigued, anyway, by the limitless possibilities of what Alex and Milo may find out in further installments of this series.

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