Sunday, July 26, 2020


by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

It's often fun to guess what an author had in mind when he chooses a cryptic, one-word title for a book. Take this book, for example. At first the apparent referent of the word "deception" is the video left by the victim of a gruesome murder, claiming that she was sexually harassed and assaulted by three of her co-workers at an elite prep school. One interview with each of the teachers named in the video is enough to convince the LAPD's best homicide case-closer, Lt. Milo Sturgis, and his unofficial partner, freelance child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware, that the allegation is a blackmail scam that the victim never carried out.

But that kind of detecting is why Milo and Alex have been put on the case. The chief is worried about his kid's chances of getting into Yale; said kid goes to the vic's prep. He would prefer that they find a motive, and a suspect, unrelated to the school. At one point, his strictures goad Milo into quitting, but that's only temporary. Eventually, the truth must out. But it doesn't out easy, with a pool of suspects and witnesses who all have something to hide, all pointing fingers at someone else, and all past, present and (in the students' case) future masters of – cough – deception.

All right, enough about the title. Let's talk about the case. This is a disturbing one. Substitute teacher, and SAT test prep tutor, Elise Freeman is found in her bathtub, covered in dry ice, no obvious injuries. Could it be an accident? Suicide? Oh, come on. Don't even go there. Of course it's murder; the only questions are who, why and how. Could it be the sleazy salesman boyfriend, described by one witness as "shake his hand, count your fingers"? Maybe it's the young Prep alum who has become one of teacher's special pets – and who may be involved with her in another scam. Maybe it's the angry Latino student, attending Prep on a baseball scholarship, who threw his shoulder out and resents having to be tutored – and perhaps also sexed up by the naughty teacher.

Milo and Alex find a witness who bought dry ice for the killers, or rather their female accomplices, in return for some marijuana. But the witness denies recognizing the girls in a photo-lineup of all the girls at prep, or the Latino boy's previous school either. While they flounder at an impasse, another murder happens. Then not one, but two people who may be either suspects or witnesses go missing. Could they be victims now? Or are the killers on the run?

When the pieces of the puzzle start to come together, the general shape of it turns out to be one you might have seen coming from a long way off – and no, it doesn't leave Prep smelling rosy – but exactly who done it only becomes obvious through a combination of dogged police work and some diabolically clever interrogating. As in some of the immediately previous books in this series, what Alex contributes (as a mental health professional) to the murder-solving process is mainly insight into what angles might work while interviewing suspects, plausible motives for suspected acts, and the easy-to-miss meaning of a piece of evidence.

But mostly, he's there as a narrator to provide color commentary for another brilliant episode of the Milo Sturgis show – actually a scarily smart guy and effective manager of the detective talent under his command. Self-destructive in his personal habits, always loaded with a full clip of sardonic wit, nimble enough to change the direction he's looking at the drop of a penny, dedicated to pursuit of the truth at any cost, he could actually be the star of this picture – by which I mean, the mental movie that begins to roll the instant the smog-tinted sunlight of L.A. starts to shine through your imagination's celluloid. And whatever else it's good for, Jonathan Kellerman's prose stays out of your light.

This is the 25th "Alex Delaware" novel, from a 36-book series spanning from 1985 (When the Bough Breaks) to February 2021 (Serpentine). Although I've been skipping around in this series as used copies drop in my lap, the next book both in publication order and on my shelf is 2011's Mystery.

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