Monday, July 13, 2020


by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Rookie LAPD homicide detective Moses "Moe" Reed makes his debut in this novel – interesting to note for those of us who are ascending this mountain of murder mysteries by a non-canon-order route – and brings family baggage with him, in the form of a rivalry with his ex-detective-turned-private-investigator half-brother, Aaron Fox. Maybe the title of this book could be interpreted as a reference to Moe's anxiety to "make his bones" as a colleague of case-closing phenom, Lt. Milo Sturgis, whose coattails he rides for the first time in this outing. Maybe it has something to do with the bones he has to pick with his brother, the skeletons in their family closet. But naaah, it's clearly about the bones a team of forensic anthropologists unearths in a protected bird marsh in the middle of Los Angeles, after a pretty piano teacher turns up dead on a walking path through the marsh. All the bodies, including the piano teacher, were strangled, posed facing east with their right hands missing. The other victims were prostitutes.

As Milo, Moe and consulting psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware probe further, other traits the victims had in common bubble to the surface – being into painful, kinky sex; being seen with a bald guy. Along comes Fox, announcing that he has a client who believes the police should be looking at the shaven-headed estate manager of the rich couple whose son took lessons from the latest victim. The more they look at him, the better he looks for the crimes – a loner with a history of doing prison time for murder (although his lawyer, on the previous occasion, got him out on an appeal) – cagey, bald when last seen by the cops, and now apparently on the run, which makes him look pretty guilty. But there are still some loose threads dangling from the case. Like, why was the environmental activist in charge of protecting the marsh stabbed to death a few nights after the piano teacher's body was found? Who was the mysterious man seen giving him an envelope (presumably full of money) and what was the money for? And what on earth became of the husband, wife, and piano prodigy son who live in the house managed by the runaway suspect? Why has no one heard from them since, all of a sudden, they canceled trips abroad and flew back to California?

I almost tipped too much of my hand in this synopsis. It would be a pity to spoil this thriller for you, another example of a case with rich possibilities for a crime-solving partnership between a psychologist and one or more homicide detectives. The disturbing discoveries in the bird marsh are as nothing next to what the good guys find at the end of the trail, in a final, wired-for-video-and-audio interview between their sometime prime suspect and a surprise culprit – a climax that will have lasting, devastating effects on at least three surviving characters, and that may not leave you undisturbed, either.

Kellerman's writing is clean, lean and brisk – aiming for more of a popular register than a literary one – but the ugly truths uncovered by his sleuths' sleuthing gets across a definite worldview that, in one of the previous installments, a speaking character suggested might be just a touch nihilistic. In this book, a character challenges Alex to come back to his real job (psychotherapy for kids), and although Alex doesn't answer her, the reason he probably won't comes alive in the reader's imagination. Whatever name you want to put on it, it probably doesn't live far from the side of Alex's character that drives him to make independent inquiries alongside an official police investigation, and on occasion, to deceive witnesses, apply pressure to psychological pressure points and otherwise bend medical ethics in the pursuit of justice. Alex may never be able to go back to treating kids, but given how invaluable his input is in this investigation (and so many others), child psychology's loss is clearly criminal justice's gain.

This is the 23rd of 35 (going on 36) "Alex Delaware" psychological thrillers. Since I'm skipping around in the series as used books come my way, I missed out on books 20-22, titled Gone, Obsession and Compulsion. However, my next objective in climbing this mountain of books is this novel's immediate successor, Evidence. Other one-word titles in the series include Monster (No. 13), Therapy (18), Deception, Mystery, Victims, Guilt, Killer, Motive and Breakdown (25-31), and the yet-to-be released Serpentine (36). However, these hard-to-distinguish single-word titles are only part of a gigantic body of work that also includes non-Alex novels The Butcher's Theater, The Conspiracy Club, True Detectives and The Murderer's Daughter.

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