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February 16, 2009

I am always on the lookout for new authors I might enjoy, and I must admit I’m probably one of the most difficult readers in the world to satisfy. Not only must the author create a compelling plot and interesting characters, but he or she must actually write well in order to hold my interest.

I was recently wandering through a local bookstore and I stumbled across a section of books by suspense author Jonathan Kellerman. Apparently, he’s been publishing novels since the mid-eighties, but I’d never heard of him.

The first book I tried by Kellerman is DR. DEATH, a relatively recent installment in the Alex Delaware series.

At first, Dr. Death reads like a traditional police procedural. Dr. Eldon Mate, an advocate of assisted suicide whose parallels to Dr. Jack Kevorkian inspires disgust, is found dead in a rental van, the victim of particularly grisly murder. Strange geometric patterns are carved into his abdomen, his genitals have been mutilated, and he was posthumously attached to the killing machine of his own creation.

Thiopental-and-potassium-chloride cocktail, anyone?

Detective Milo Sturgis invites Dr. Alex Delaware into the case for assistance with psychopathology. Who killed Dr. Mate? There is no shortage of suspects for a man who helped more than 50 people “travel” into the next life, but the problem is narrowing them down.

The police procedural quickly turns into a fast-paced and constantly surprising psychological thriller.

What Kellerman makes immediately clear in DR. DEATH is that Detective Sturgis is gay—in fact, the only openly gay LAPD homicide detective. When I first discovered this, I thought: Oh great, the whole story is going to be tinted with the detective’s struggle against gay biases.

I’ve got no problem with gay people, but it’s kind of like a food you enjoy. You’ll eat it now and again, but you’ll get irritated if people keep shoving it down your throat.

Fortunately, Kellerman isn’t in the force-feeding business, and the homosexual component of Detective Sturgis’s life is hardly mentioned at all. If anything, the subject is downplayed, but I suspect it is a bigger issue in other Delaware novels. I’ll let you know when I find out.

Paralleling the search for Dr. Mate’s killer is Alex Delaware’s personal and professional lives. He is living with his girlfriend, Robin, in “The House On The Hill”, but the relationship is not explored beyond a few tasteful romps in the sack and the occasional word shared over a meal. I suspect I will have to read Kellerman’s previous novels to learn more about how Robin fits into the picture. Delaware is also a former patient, her brother and her father, all of whom are linked to Dr. Mate by her mother’s suicide.

DR. DEATH is a fascinating exploration of crime and psychological motivation. Kellerman introduces plenty of characters, each of whom presents a unique element to the story—and often an understandable motive for wanting Dr. Mate dead. The plot is well-organized and crafted with care, the gritty Los Angeles backdrop a perfect setting for this story.

Alex Delaware himself is a likeable character. His moral compass is strong but nonetheless human, and unlike many protagonists, does not preach to the reader. He maintains a constant internal dialogue about the case and how it relates to his personal psychology practice.

Jonathan Kellerman’s writing is engaging, if a bit stilted. He frequently writes in fragmented sentences that might be more powerful if a few were eliminated, but he still manages to pull it off. And although a surprise secondary character pulls off much of the detective work for Delaware and Sturgis, Delaware’s ability to pull the pieces together renews the reader’s admiration.

My vote? Highly recommended. I finished DR. DEATH in about three days, and I’m already halfway through MONSTER, an earlier Alex Delaware novel. I also purchased GONE, which is one of the most recent installments, and I have a feeling I’ll be returning to the bookstore for more of Jonathan Kellerman’s work.

Have you read anything by Jonathan Kellerman? Or DR. DEATH in particular? What did you think about the story, the characters, the writing style? I want to know.


DR. DEATH was originally published in 2001 and can be purchased from all major online retailers, including Amazon.

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