Book Review: 'Bones: An Alex Delaware Novel,' by Jonathan Kellerman
Monday, December 15, 2008
An Alex Delaware Novel
By Jonathan Kellerman
Ballantine. 353 pp. $27
As I read "Bones," Jonathan Kellerman's 23rd Alex Delaware novel in 23 years, I reflected on where Kellerman fits in the cosmos of best-selling crime writers. He's not as good or serious a writer as Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos or others at the top of the heap, nor is he as deplorable as James Patterson and his imitators. Kellerman belongs somewhere in the middle, not far from John Sandford. I prefer Sandford's books, but both are skillful writers who apply their talents to mass-market entertainment. That means giving us jazzed-up cop novels that often feature dumb jokes, lurid sex, spoiled rich girls, arch dialogue and way too much cute. That's the difference between the best and the rest: The best writers, favoring art over commerce, don't do cute.
Kellerman's strength is that he can set up an intriguing situation and keep things moving at a breakneck pace. He can also, when he wants to, write well. He's good at short, vivid descriptions. A troublesome man: "Close-shaved, bullnecked, three-martini nose." A doctor: "All of four ten and ninety muscular pounds. Her face was soft and smooth as a teenager's under a cloud of careless brown hair." A lawyer: "She was fifty or so, green-eyed and apple-cheeked, with a sturdy body packed into a grey cashmere suit. Platinum rings, diamond earrings, and a triple string of pearls bounced light in interesting ways." Kellerman's people rarely have much depth, but they make terrific entrances.
"Bones" opens with two nifty scenes. The first introduces an entirely worthless rich kid who's about to be thrown out of his expensive school for cheating and wants the ACLU to take his case. The other features a boy who buys some junk, convinced that he can sell it on eBay. ("Because people bought anything on eBay. You could sell a stool sample on eBay.") Among the junk he collects is a box that proves to have human bones inside. These two sweetly sardonic portraits of young America are curtain-raisers for Kellerman's serial-killer drama.
The body of a young woman, a piano teacher named Selena Bass, is found near a marsh in Los Angeles. Kellerman's dynamic duo of Milo Sturgis, the gay police lieutenant, and Dr. Alex Delaware, "psychological consultant" to the LAPD, are soon on the case. Other victims turn up nearby. The piano teacher, who had been giving lessons to the son of a very rich family, proves not to have been so prim and proper. There are reports that she's been playing piano at local orgies (at the orgies I've attended, the Stones on the stereo sufficed, but this is L.A.), and there's speculation that she went on to join in the fun. Other lurid details emerge, involving sex toys, sadism, self-mutilation and the like. (At one point, Delaware grimly declares that "the case was boiling down to another hideous pattern of sexual sadism." If that's not a page-turner, I don't know what is.) The rest of the book is a basic police procedural with Sturgis and Delaware talking to countless people who might cast light on the increasingly murky crimes in progress.
Kellerman's dialogue is mostly sharp but sometimes flies off the rails, as in this improbable exchange between Milo Sturgis and a hostile woman lawyer:
"You're mad," said Wallenberg.
"More like peeved."
"I meant in the mental illness sense."
"Insult registered, digested, soon to be excreted."
Kellerman has an annoying habit of repeating himself. In cop-speak, to "rabbit" is to flee the law, and an "unmarked" is an unmarked police car. He uses both terms endlessly. At one point "rabbit" or "rabbited" occurs three times in as many pages; after that, "Milo and I waited in the unmarked" is followed a page later by "Milo and I returned to the unmarked." Yes, in real life people do repeat themselves ad nauseam, but novelists, unless their goal is to drive their readers insane, should not do the same. These excesses reflect lazy writing and comatose editing.
I found myself comparing Kellerman with the godfather of Los Angeles crime fiction, Raymond Chandler. There are clear differences. Chandler would never have made a gay policeman a hero; in his books gays exist to be ridiculed and/or murdered -- see the Lindsay Marriott episode in "Farewell, My Lovely." But there are similarities, too. Chandler's plots ranged from complicated to incomprehensible, and "Bones" is in that tradition. In its second half, many shadowy figures flash before our eyes; they are someone's neighbor or someone's ex-wife or someone's stepbrother or someone who was in rehab with someone else; the reader despairs of sorting them out. Also like Chandler, Kellerman presents the Los Angeles rich as at best boorish and degenerate and often homicidal as well. If you want to scorn the rich, both writers make it easy. And both of them -- Chandler always and Kellerman here -- insist that the female of the species is deadlier than the male.
I don't think the plot of "Bones" will withstand scrutiny, but most readers probably won't care. The story sweeps them along, offering plenty of snappy dialogue and cheap thrills, plus a fair amount of suspense that is relieved by the final unveiling of the killer. It's harmless fun, but I have to think that Kellerman, like Sandford, could write better novels if he wanted to.