Monday, August 24, 2020


by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

I'll probably remember this book, at least partly, for one chilling moment in which a police artist is admitting that his work on a sketch of a murder suspect, based on an very sketchy eyewitness description, is complete garbage. Yet when he sets eyes on the picture – described, in the moment, as an "ambiguous pale disk filled with bland, male features" that, if colored yellow, could have been "Mr. Happy Face's noncommittal brother" – consulting psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware admits to himself, "It twanged a memory synapse deep within my brain. Had I seen him before?"

Another character's response to a sketch of the same suspect is equally chilling. She says something about how there seems to be something missing from the eyes, to which Alex (who by now recalls the face he glimpsed before) replies to the effect that whatever it is, is also missing from the real guy's eyes. Later, with the killer before him, Alex describes him thus: "Pudding-faced, snub-featured, unlined by contemplation, problematic abstraction, or any of the mean little demands posed by sanity."

The killer in this thriller – actually one-half of a two-killer team – is different, full stop. Different, also, from the bogeyman of almost any other murder mystery I've ever read. Terrifyingly different, in ways that make a psychological angle supremely relevant to the Los Angeles Police Department's investigation of one – no, two – no, four – no wait, five grisly homicides that are clearly the work of somebody who likes to see the insides of human bodies. Mercifully (if that's the right word), he snaps his victims' necks before he eviscerates them. It becomes increasingly clear that this is a killer who is so loony that he probably needs someone to help him organize his crimes and evade capture – maybe someone just as deadly as himself.

It's one of those specially creepy mysteries in which the main character comes to the horrible realization that he's been in a room with each of the killers without knowing it – and that most of the victims, perhaps even more victims than the police know about yet, share a connection that reaches back to a psychiatric facility where he (Alex) worked early in his career. Bad things were done, not necessarily with the best intentions, to a patient who was the wrong guy to cross, aided by an accomplice with a blood lust of his own, and between them they will bring things to the point where a child psychologist is the only person who can stop a killer who snaps necks with his bare hands from doing it to his cop buddy.

Lt. Milo Sturgis and his crime-fighting gang are all back, including Hollywood Homicide Detective Petra Connor and her partner Raoul Biro (stars of a spinoff series of novels). Their dialogue pops with fun and intelligence, and their police work is solid. But with anything but a straightforward case before them, solid police work eventually takes a backseat (along with two flatulent dogs) to leaps of intuition and instinct about what makes cuckoos of the non-clock persuasion tick. And in case I haven't said it clearly enough already, this one's a chiller on a level I didn't expect even of this long, distinguished series of psychologically twisted crime novels.

This is the 27th of going on 36 Alex Delaware novels, ranging from When the Bough Breaks (1985) through the upcoming Serpentine (February 2021). Among the titles in the series prior to this book are Devil's Waltz, Survival of the Fittest, The Murder Book, A Cold Heart and Compulsion; immediately following this book, Guilt, Killer, Motive and Breakdown. Obviously, Jonathan Kellerman writes police thrillers with a psychological component. His other titles include a book of poems for children and their parents and non-fiction about child psychology and guitars.

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