It seems unfair that the first Jonathan Kellerman book I review should be Evidence, as I am a huge fan of Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series and this is not one of his best. I have been reading his books since I was a teenager, which goes to show you how long they have been around. Kellerman’s strengths are his intricate plotting and evocation of the darkness which lies beneath California’s glittering surface.
In Evidence, Detective Milo Sturgis calls Alex to a murder in a half-finished mansion. A couple have been killed, seemingly in flagrante delicto. The man’s ID shows him to be an architect, but the woman has no identification on her at all. From this opening, Milo and Alex find that the murdered man was sleeping with a large number of women, including the women at the now-closed architectural firm at which he worked. As Milo and Alex investigate, they discover a possible connection to far eastern royalty and an unexpected link to environmental terrorism that changes the direction of their investigation…
My family think that Alex Delaware is boring as a character, and I have to agree with them to some extent. When I was in my teens, Alex seemed impossibly grown-up and sophisticated, with his home in one of the canyons round LA, his koi pond, beautiful guitar-making girlfriend, love of jazz, and endless dinners in fancy LA restaurants. Now I am 35 and he still seems impossibly sophisticated – but that impossibility is what makes me like him less as a character. Alex and his girlfriend Robin must now be in their 40s or 50s, but the fact that child-psychologist Alex has never had children is never discussed (previously Robin got pregnant by someone else and had an abortion, which did precipitate a crisis for both of them); Alex’s feelings about not having children are, like so much else about Alex, a closed book to the reader. And while it’s unlikely that Mil0 Sturgis, the gay LAPD detective, would still be an outsider in the department in a much more gay-friendly climate, Milo’s characterisation has suffered – with nothing to fight against, he is somehow less interesting than he used to be.
But I can forgive all that most of the time, because on a good day, Kellerman’s labyrinthine plots more than make up for it. Unlike Jeffrey Deaver (also great at thinking up intricate plots), Kellerman usually keeps me guessing right up to the end. (I’m a big fan of Deaver, by the way, but lately – possibly because I’ve read too many of his books – I’ve been able to spot the plot twists. He needs to go back to putting people in real jeopardy. In his latest Katherine Dance novel, I knew every time when someone was really going to die and when he was simply using cliffhanger chapter endings to make me think a sympathetic character was about to be murdered. Less of the smoke and mirrors, please, Mr Deaver – go back to the days of The Bone Collector, when you weren’t afraid to have a nice woman die a horrible death involving a steampipe!) Anyway, digression aside, Jonathan Kellerman is a real master of plotting – the story weaves, changes, evolves as new evidence is unearthed. He doesn’t go in for shock twists; just real, solid plots rooted in the start of the story, but ones that you simply can’t predict from the opening. For me, the disappointing thing about Evidence was that the story was all over pretty much as soon as Milo picks up the case – there is no sense of jeopardy, no race to solve the crime before something awful happens. Instead Alex and Milo just uncover what happened.
As usual, Alex makes leaps of deduction that turn out, almost without exception, to be right, despite the fact that they are largely unsupported by evidence – I’d expect even someone with his intuition to be wrong occasionally, but yet again in this book Alex comes up with a theory and they pursue it to the exclusion of all other leads despite the lack of evidence. And Milo seems to be spending his time driving around talking to Alex or being grumpy in the local Indian restaurant which functions as his second office. Rick, Milo’s surgeon boyfriend, has become almost as perfect and dull as Robin.
Evidence is not one of Kellerman’s greats but I really do urge you to read his earlier books – When The Bough Breaks, his first Alex Delaware novel, is absolutely engrossing, tightly plotted, and a truly great crime novel. When he’s good, Kellerman is superb – and I’m sure he’ll be back on form shortly.