Monday, March 9, 2020

Private Eyes

Private Eyes
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Dr. Alex Delaware no longer practices as a child psychologist, other than consulting on family law cases and helping an LAPD homicide detective solve an occasional twisted case. But he's always available to his former patients. Now a young woman he hasn't seen or heard from since she was nine years old – nine years ago – calls on him for help, and he can't refuse. Melissa was a remarkable patient – almost a magical case, Alex has always thought – a girl who called for help at age 7 to deal with her own crippling phobias. Now Melissa is concerned about her mom, a former actress and model who was severely burned by an acid attack years ago and has been agoraphobic ever since. Gina Ramp is starting to come out of her shell, with the aid of a new husband and a pair of therapists. But Melissa, who has been accepted at Harvard, is feeling a little jealous and suspects these people's motives. Also, the guy who burned her is out of jail, off parole and back in town. Melissa worries about leaving her mom to their tender mercies, and wants Alex's read on the situation.

Alex is still reading it when Gina up and disappears, apparently while driving to a therapy session all by herself – something nobody thought she was ready to do. Melissa is at her wits' end. Alex's cop buddy, on suspension after decking a superior officer on live TV, is willing to come on board as a private investigator. So, while Milo follows the trails of all possible motives for hurting Gina – including love, revenge and money – Alex looks at the behavioral angles. Something is off about Melissa's stepdad and his tennis instructor. Then there's the girl's boyfriend, whose mother works for the stepdad. The family banker and the family lawyer, who seem in an awful hurry to take control of Gina Ramp's estate. An ex-con who claims to be trying to make amends, but whose motive for burning Gina's face was never explained. A hint of something inappropriate going on between Gina and her therapist. Unanswered questions about the fate of the psychologist who originally referred Melissa to Alex. When evidence surfaces suggesting that Gina Ramp is dead, it becomes terribly urgent to put the pieces together.

With a late 1980s-early 1990s Los Angeles setting, this book is recent enough to qualify as present-day while still providing nostalgic glimpses of that cultural moment. At the same time, it has the literary quality of a perfectly-worked-out hardboiled mystery updated for a later generation. That's in spite of the fact that the "private eyes" are actually a child psychologist who really cares about his client's wellbeing and an investigator who is, and always will be, a cop at heart. The particular terms of their partnership in this case put a certain strain on their friendship; and of course, it also allows Alex to find himself in one of those dangerous situations you should never go into without police backup, four or five novels since he should have learned that lesson. But still, as I say, it's pretty hardboiled, with a sense of self-deprecating irony, detailed eye for architecture, home decor, personal appearance and dress, and a blues-tinged romantic dilemma between two women he loves in different ways. You'll think he's going to break both of their hearts, or maybe it'll go the other way around. It's so very Philip Marlowe.

This is the sixth of (currently) 35 mystery-thrillers featuring child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware and his LAPD detective buddy Milo Sturgis. Previous installments are When the Bough Breaks, Blood Test, Over the Edge, Silent Partner and Time Bomb; coming next after this book is Devil's Waltz. The author, himself an authority on child psychology, is part of the powerhouse Kellerman writing family that also includes his wife Faye (cf. the Decker and Lazarus crime novels) and son Jesse.

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