Tuesday, July 7, 2020


by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Dr. Alex Delaware doesn't practice much as a child psychologist, these days, but he consults with the Los Angeles police and courts. Eight years ago, it was as a court consultant that he became involved in the case of two 13-year-old boys who murdered a 2-year-old girl. His job was just to evaluate whether the boys should be tried as adults or as juveniles; his report was inconclusive and, anyway, the case ended in a plea deal with both boys being sent away to different facilities in the California Youth Authority (as the Ca. Division of Juvenile Justice was then known). Time passes.

In the story's present day, Alex gets a phone call from one of the boys – a mentally handicapped guy named Rand – saying that he just got out of juvenile prison, that he's a good person, and that he wants to talk about Kristal, the victim. But then Rand fails to show up for their appointment, and the next thing Alex hears, the police have found him shot in the head and dumped under a freeway on-ramp. Enter LAPD Lt. Milo Sturgis, and Alex is once again on the police side of the case.

The book takes its title from the presumed motive for Rand's murder, at an early point in Milo and Alex's joint investigation when the clear suspect is Kristal's father. Barnett Malley owns multiple guns, including the type used to shoot the kid; he also has a history of shooting looks that, if looks could kill, would reduce everyone he perceived as being in the boys' corner to a smoking crater. His evident anger smoulders so hot that even Alex could be in danger – so our heroes think – as they gradually start to suspect that Malley may have also done in his wife (making it look like a suicide), putting a prison hit on Troy (the other boy convicted in Kristal's death), maybe murdering Troy's junkie mother, maybe doing in the kid who killed Troy when he got out of the CYA (this book, by the way, does not make the California justice system look good), and might not be done killing yet.

But then, another pattern catches Alex in the corner of the eye – another suspect, another motive – and from that point on, Malley's rage seems less and less relevant to the case. Which is not to say that it won't play a role. All I'm saying is, the picture that Milo and Alex fill in, with increasingly convincing detail, is so disturbing and sickening that by the end, you'll want to jump into the page, grab one of Malley's guns and use it on a creep whose victims, including the unborn, number somewhere in the neighborhood of 15. I'll leave you to debate whether the unborn count. I'll also hold back from spoiling it any more than it's already been spoiled.

Alex is a pretty keen sleuth. What actually proves to be the truth initially comes to Milo's attention through a series of epiphanies, based on Alex's expert insight into human behavior and what Milo himself describes, with a shudder, as an evil mind. Another question I'll let you debate amongst yourself is whether knowing the evil that lies in the heart of man makes one, ipso facto, personally evil. However, Alex also reveals something of his character to a therapist girlfriend who, afterward, realizes she can't be with him anymore, by the way he prioritizes catching the bad guy over the emotional wellbeing of a vulnerable girl. He also wrestles with his conscience after helping Milo hogtie a non-compliant witness who happens to be having a manic episode. Mental health ethics comes to blows with stopping a sexual predator and serial murderer, and the one that wins tells you (and Alex) who Alex really is. Guess who?

This 2005 novel is the 19th of soon-to-be 36 Alex Delaware novels, a series that started in 1985 with When the Bough Breaks (a.k.a. Shrunken Heads). The most recent release in the series was The Museum of Desire, and a new book titled Serpentine is due to reach booksellers in February 2021. Since I'm reading used copies of whatever installments I can pick up, my next look into this series will be book 23, Bones (2008). For what it's worth. Besides mysteries featuring Alex and Milo, Kellerman has also authored or co-authored 11 other novels, a book of poems, some short stories and a handful of non-fiction works about abnormal child psychology.

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