Killer, by Jonathan Kellerman


Killer is a mystery novel by Jonathan Kellerman, the 29th in his series of books about psychologist Alex Delaware. Delaware works with the police and the court system in various capacities, thus finding himself constantly involved in various crimes and mysteries. He has a cop sidekick Milo Sturgis that he works with, for those occasions when the plot calls for him to do cop stuff that are beyond the purview of a psychologist.

I rarely if ever read mystery novels. Assumption by Percival Everett is about the only one I can think of off the top of my head from recent years; that one I believe is considered at least on the border of the mystery genre.

I received Killer as a gift, which is actually a nice way to occasionally expand my usual reading. It was the same thing with The Emerald Storm by William Dietrich which I also received as a gift, as I never read swashbuckling historical fiction-type books either. Not that there’s anything stopping me from sampling other genres on my own periodically (like a few forays I’ve made in recent years into science fiction), but getting a book as a present that I would never have picked myself can be the prodding I need to motivate me to venture beyond my more typical reading experiences.

In Killer, Delaware is working as an expert witness psychologist in child custody cases, not for one side or the other but as a theoretically neutral party chosen by the judge. In the central case of the book, he investigates a dispute between two sisters. Connie, a wealthy, successful, icy bitch older sister is seeking to gain custody of her sister Cherie’s baby on the grounds that Cherie is an unfit mother. Cherie is a kind of free-spirit, hippie-type groupie who has had some drug issues in the past and who at one point voluntarily left her child with Connie for months so she could travel with a band.

Matters become even more serious when various parties connected with the case become victims or perpetrators of murder and attempted murder, though who is really guilty of what remains hidden until the very end of the book—hence the mystery.

OK, so what are my thoughts, having now sampled this genre that is nearly new to me?

Certainly the book is an easy read, and interesting and enjoyable to a degree. I didn’t have to force myself to stick with it; I was curious how it would all turn out. So purely as recreational reading I liked it more than not. (I’d rank it a bit above the aforementioned The Emerald Storm in that sense, just to compare it to another casual reading book from a genre that’s relatively unknown to me.)

But probably the one thing I’m most struck by is how formulaic and clichéd it felt. Again, not that I have some high degree of familiarity with the genre that would allow me to say what’s typical and what’s not, but if you include reading from long ago, short stories, etc., but especially movies and other non-book forms of storytelling, I have some sense of what I take to be the stereotypical mystery story, and this very much fits that stereotype.

Which surprised me, because I gather from the awards he’s won and such that Kellerman is considered among the elite writers of mysteries, and somehow I equated that with transcending stereotypes and doing bold and innovative things within the genre, whatever that would entail.

Not that a “typical” mystery novel is necessarily a weak book, a poorly written book, etc., because Killer is not, but I vaguely expected something more.

Killer features a tough-talking male protagonist and his similar cop sidekick, both highly capable alpha males on the side of right with cynical, world-weary attitudes who speak in clipped sentences using nicknames for each other like “Big Guy.” Clues are gradually introduced to steer the reader—and them—in one direction or another, until in the end all is revealed, we find out “who done it,” and most or all of the loose ends are tied up.

Granted, you can’t quite say that in all respects this reads like some stereotypical mystery novel of the ’30s or ’40s or whenever, because there are certain nods to more modern attitudes. Delaware has a girlfriend, for instance, and as is required by political correctness she is a highly intelligent, successful woman, every bit Delaware’s equal in their relationship. Not to mention, the cop Sturgis is gay.

But these aren’t things that are particularly relevant to the plot. They’re perfunctory add-ons to pander to certain readers, but 95% or more of the book really does read like something from decades ago. It’s stated in the book, for instance, that Sturgis is gay, but that’s as far as his gayness goes. Maybe it’s different in other books in this series, but in Killer at least there are no sex scenes of him and a boyfriend or anything particularly gay about him. Kellerman could just as easily have said oh by the way he’s Asian, or oh by the way he’s deaf, and it would have had the same (lack of) impact on the story.

I also guessed “who done it” very early, just based on what I took to be the informal rules of mysteries. I mean, if you assume it has to be someone who is actually in the book from fairly early—not introduced from nowhere at the very end as the killer—and that it’s not any of the most “obvious” people that are immediately identified as suspects by the principles and that in real life it would turn out to be 99.9% of the time, you narrow it down very quickly. Which is just another indication that Killer does indeed “play by the rules” of the genre.

But maybe that’s what readers of mysteries want, and so a well-written, compelling story that follows the formula they expect and are comfortable with earns a spot at the top of the genre.

When I delved a bit into science fiction in recent years after having read almost nothing in that genre since childhood, I didn’t fall in love with it, but I found it just appealing enough for me to develop at least a vague intention of exploring it further, and indeed I now have a number of science fiction books on my list of probable future reading. I enjoyed The Emerald Storm modestly, but not enough to cross that same line to where I expect to read much if any historical fantasy fiction in the future. I would put Killer in between my recent science fiction reading and The Emerald Storm in that sense, but probably on the same side of that line as The Emerald Storm. Based on my level of enjoyment of Killer, I’d be slightly more inclined to further explore mystery novels than historical adventure novels, but my guess is I won’t do much more reading in either genre.


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