Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"I want to set the record straight: I thought the cop was a prostitute."

Obsession (2007) by Jonathan Kellerman

Fair is fair. I was unkind (though not, I'll stress, inaccurate) in my reviews (here and here) of Harlan Coben this summer, whom I likened (or meant to liken) to a poor man's Jonathan Kellerman, pretty much my favorite mystery writer. Well, having just completed Kellerman's latest (Obsession), I think it's safe to say: he's almost completely lost it.

I'll let Wikipedia do some of the heavy lifting: Alex Delaware is the fictional protagonist of Jonathan Kellerman's popular murder mystery series. Alex Delaware is a child psychologist who solves mysteries, often with the help of his best friend, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis. He has an on again, off again girlfriend, Robin Castagna and a French bulldog, Spike. Spike dies in the novel Gone but is followed by a new French bulldog named Blanche.


(btw, spoilers abound here, so don't read this if you plan on reading this book. But, seriously, don't read this book.)

What I liked:

1. Dr. Delaware (for once) doesn't get beaten to within a inch of his life (Milo does this time!).
This has been a staple of the series for some time now and, given that Dr. D is supposed to be a stand-in for Kellerman himself--or so I reason--this has a sort of self-loathing element to it. Typically, Delaware will be beaten within an inch of his life (often after he selflessly elects to defend a damsel in distress), at which point he will either: (a) drop some kick-ass judo moves on the assailant (did I neglect to mention that this world-class child psychologist dabbles in martial arts? Perhaps I did. He does.) or (b) lay very still so as to appear dead to all the world, at which point the assailant, somewhat inexplicably, decides to leave. I've seen both several times and, truth be told, there's really no rhyme or reason to which Delaware we'll be treated to (perhaps Kellerman uses a dartboard to decide these matters). At any rate, Delaware escapes unscathed this time around, though Milo, his best friend and, by all accounts, the greatest living detective in history, manages to get shot in the gut when he decides to enter into a potential ambush without pulling out his gun. Oh, right. These are supposed to be the things I liked about the book...

2. Any book in the Delaware series is easy enough to plow through in three days without much (or any) effort at all.
It may not be the prettiest prose (more on this in a sec), but it's eminently devourable. This is the same principle that allowed me to motor through Kellerman's previous novel, Gone, while I was in Cuba for Jon and Alex's wedding, despite the fact that I was never sober for more than an hour a day at any point during the weeklong trip. That said, I remember next to nothing about Gone--I seem to recall the villain being, somewhat improbably, an amateur taxidermist--though this could conceivably have nothing to do with my truly prodigous alcohol consumption during said trip.

3. (more of a comment on the series at large) This could've been a tremendous movie series and it bums me out that this was, apparently, never seriously considered.
Hollywood has made franchises out of Jim Fucking Varney, hapless police cadets, the childlike ramblings of James Patterson, a dying vigilante with a perplexing fascination with puzzles, a borderline mentally retarded boxer, dreadfully unfunny send-ups of the horror genre, a dystopic future run by machines serving as a backdrop for a cringe-inducing love story...and they really couldn't find a place for (what once were) legitimately psychologically thrilling tales of a bright and handsome child psychologist partnering with an equally brilliant gay detective as they explore the seedy underbelly of 1980s and 90s Los Angeles? The stories practically write themselves! (Note: I'm serious, I think these stories may actually be writing themselves at this point, like Kellerman's typewriter has, unbeknownst to him, become sentient.) You give me a decade, and I'll tell you who could've nailed the leads. 70s? Alan Alda as Delaware, Elliot Gould as Milo (intriguingly, Gould in his thinner days would've made a great Delaware...though Alda as Milo would be completely wrong). 80s and 90s? Ted Danson as Dr. D, and Brendan Gleason as Milo. (Fun fact: turns out that the very first Kellerman novel--When the Bough Breaks, one of the best in the series--was made into a critically well-received TV movie starring none other than Ted Danson. I swear I didn't know this until five minutes ago.) Now? The cast of Reaper (ok, admittedly, this one needs some work.) As for Robin Castagna, Delaware's on-again, off-again super-sexy yet totally devoid of personality live-in girlfriend, I think I'd go with a rather shapely straw broom (any decade).

What I didn't like: oh, boy! Virtually everything else...

1. Needlessly Gruesome at Times. One secondary character in the book relays a scene from his childhood wherein he witnessed the villain, as a teenager, masturbating with animal guts and vomit as lubricant. Dude, that's not chilling, it's just gross....and totally unnecessary.

2. Overwritten in Places, Underwritten in Others. A few weeks back, while cleaning up my parents' basement, Carrie and Taylor stumbled upon a short story written by yours truly at the age of, I believe, 14. Wedged into a truly terrible seven or so page story of a seemingly blind pool hustler who was (wait for it) only pretending to be blind (gasp!) was a remarkably intricate one page description of every corner of the bar, and an uncomfortably thorough description of every article of clothing the protagonist was wearing (sidebar: I think I just wrote about things that I wanted to own at that time, including a powder blue University of North Carolina hoodie). athat My second though (after: "my God! How quickly can I destroy any trace of this ever existing?") was: I must have been reading lots of Jonathan Kellerman. Put differently, 14-year old Kyle wrote elaborate descriptions of settings and clothing choices because that's what he thought good writers did, and because, stylistically, he didn't have a clue. Unfortunately for Kellerman, unless my math is off, he can only rely on the latter. I'll elaborate.

Here's what we know about the leads in Obsession:

(a) Dr. Alex Delaware: psychologist, smart, handsome, witty, rich, jogger, may have a beard, enjoys sex with (c).
(b) Milo Stugis: detective, bright, gay, M.A. in English, fat, ugly, cynical, likes to eat.
(c) Robin Castagna: hot, auburn hair, makes guitars, enjoys sex with (a).

The catalyst for the murder investigation--Tanya, an 18-year old pre-med student--is a total blank slate. Yes, we know that she has OCD, but that is absolutely it. That's not adding depth to characters...it's barely even writing by numbers.

But, on the flip side, we know that Myron Bedard (at best, a tertiary character) house contains a:

room [...] bigger than most homes, walled with Shantung silk the crimson of venous blood. The ceiling was a domed riot of plaster curlicues set off by yards of crown molding. Fruitwood stands hosted Chinese horses and camels and bewildered-looking deities, all glazed in the same green and gold. Gilded cases of glass and porcelain and silver boasted of exuberant acquisition. Enough space for three large seating areas and a like number of Persian rugs. Damask couches, tapestry chairs, a few leather pieces thrown in for variety, inlaid tables strategically placed (p. 221).

...not to mention paragraphs upon paragraphs describing Robin and Alex's new dog, Blanche.

The contrast is jarring. Nothing (of import) is fleshed out here. At the very least, one would expect some character development from the protagonist, but not this time around. Back in the day, you could always count on Delaware channel surfing before determining that all TV is trash and picking up a mystery novel only to set it down an hour later after surmising that it, like everything else in the genre, is pure dreck (har!). Here? Nada.

3. There's No Real Mystery in Obsession. Like, literally. The villain is identified roughly halfway through the book and is caught/killed in the next to last chapter. Aside from one or two anecdotes about him relayed to us by secondary characters (see point #1), the bad guy never speaks, which is a questionable writing technique to say the least.

4. Too Much Exposition "Concealed" as Dialogue. The Delaware books are always first person narratives from the doc's perspective. And, of course, a rigid adherence to that format means that the only way Alex can find out anything is if he's actually there when it happens (or it's relayed to him after the fact.) This leads to Alex riding along with Milo rather more than you'd expect an LAPD psychological consultant to do. For the most part, this is tolerable, as Milo and Alex's banter is entertaining enough. What is less forgivable is having Alex sit it on numerous police meetings at the station, with various cops relaying salient background details on the suspects to Dr. D (and, by extension, us). Back in the day, this struck me as perfectly normal (why wouldn't a heralded child psychologist participate actively in the grizzly murder investigations of troubled adults? Sometimes, he even brings snacks.), but now it strikes me as very artificial, if, I'll begrudge, somewhat unavoidable.

5. The Price of Modernity. The older Kellerman novels (including his best stuff: When the Bough Breaks, Blood Test, Over the Edge, and Silent Partner) were always good for a riveting investigative reporting scene. Alex would be stymied, only to have a seemingly trivial detail jog his memory (House is probably the best current example--or "culprit," depending on your outlook--of this), whereupon he would tear off to the local library and plow through years and years of the Los Angeles Times on microfilm before invariably stumbling upon something that was critical to the case. (This was made especially awesome--and I assure you I'm actually being genuine here--because Delaware, in what was invariably the book's best scene, would then rapidly make connections/deductions based on this new info, leading up to a big reveal...except the reveal was always framed as "I realized that I needed to speak to Milo immediately," and this conversation was always done off-stage--so to speak--thus keeping the audience in the dark for another few chapters, something that I always found strangely thrilling.) Now, if Alex has a hunch, he just googles it and sifts through the results, which is decidedly less riveting. Milo will often remark that the computers at the LAPD office are prehistoric (again: another contrivance), so Alex always ends up doing a fair bit of the legwork on this own, but there's something about the immediacy of the process now that is utterly underwhelming.

6. The DJ Thing. The bad guy, when he's not killing people (or doing some freaky masturbating thing), works as a DJ at local clubs, often presenting his own mixes of popular songs in the process. Now, while spinning at shows might seem a perfectly respectable pursuit to you and I, in the Kellerman universe, it's treated as just slightly better than professional pedophile. Here's a smattering of references (after the third or so reference, I started to keep track) to the DJ character (and, remember, this is before he's revealed to be a cold-blooded killer):

p. 138: "Your basic techno-thievery."
p. 139: part of "the usual cabal of digital scumbag thieves."

p. 140: "Music cheat."
p. 196: Fortuno said: "how's this: the individual under question is a no-talent punk kid who purloins other people's songs and cobbles them together in what the popular parlance terms 'mixes.'"
p. 199: "I do not approve of thievery. However..." Throat clear. "...in the course of my profession, I am forced to deal with individuals of dubious morality."

Now, I find Moby to be as pretentious as the next person, but this blows my mind. Did Kellerman's wife (semi-famous and, from what I gather, semi-talented author Faye Kellerman) nail a DJ or something? Or is Kellerman (currently 58) simply crotchety beyond his years? Sadly, this is probably the book's only real mystery...

Sadder still, this series appears to be my reader crack, and when the next Kellerman novel hits the shelves in '08 (only once since 1992 has he failed to release a book in a given year), I'll no doubt check it out.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Limitless Paper in a Paperless World..."

Odds, Ends, Musings, Upcoming Projects

Taking a break from slogging through my Evidence textbook (put it this way: if someone even so much as uses the word "privilege," I'll flip out) to come at you live from the confines of my bed with my new wireless router, which I love so much I want to take behind the middle school (you know the rest...). Nothing here to warrant a full post, so off we go:

a. Random Notes

  • Horrible news.

  • Been playing my brother's copy of Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction and if it's not reason enough to buy a PS3, it's damn close.

  • In a similar vein, here's a link to a kickass trailer for Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, set to "Dissolved Girl" by Massive Attack.

  • Granted, I did just crush my brother in fantasy football (60+ points victory) and I'm now 5-4 after opening a disastrous 0-3, but, I have to ask: is my cash game fantasy football team cursed? Thus far this year, I've lost the following players to injury: Andre Johnson (out since week 3 with a mysterious leg condition--ever since week 6 most news sources have said "he'll likely be back next week," only to repeat that exact assessment days later), Ronnie Brown (one of the top 3 pointgetters in the whole league before being felled by an ACL injury), Larry Johnson (hurt his ankle on Sunday and is now out for at least a week), Marvin Harrison (knee), Anthony Gonzalez (no clue). The last two are especially strange...and here's why: Harrison--my first round selection--is renowned as one of the most durable players in the league, having missed only six games due to injury in his previous eleven seasons (186 games), yet has now missed two of the last three games entirely and was virtually useless in the one that he did play in. So, anyway, hearing that there was about a 25% chance that Harrison would play this week against the Patriots, I picked up Gonzalez (Harrison's backup) to take his place. And, sure enough, A-Gon went down with an injury less than halfway through the game. The fuck? I now have a sneaking suspicion that Johnson is dead and/or has had his leg amputated and Yahoo! doesn't have the heart to tell me.

  • TV tip for those, like me, that tape Chuck from 8-9 while you watch HIMYM, but then have nothing to do from 8:30-9 unless you're willing to debase yourself and watch the truly awful yet--amazingly--moderately popular The Big Bang Theory (insert your own "well, I guess the one good thing about the WGA strike is..." joke here): tune in to the second half of the surprisingly watchable Dragon's Den on CBC, which combines the most addictive elements of American Idol (the perennial willingness to embarrass yourself on national television) with, say, Mathnet. (I know, I know. You thought you'd go the rest of your natural life without hearing "Mathnet" again. Sorry, friend. You were wrong.) Hell, throw in a little bit of the wheeler-dealer aspects of Dallas while you're at it.

b. Upcoming Projects

  • Gravity's Rainbow: I've decided that the best way to handle the book that's haunted my dreams that I've started multiple times without coming anywhere close to finishing it is to shamelessly copy Ryan and blog about my reading experience. Note to Thomas Pynchon and his controversial National Book Award winning novel (but skip the section on the plot, dammit!): you're on my list...of things to do. Shit. That doesn't sound tough at all. Rather unhelpfully and yet not at all surprisingly (as Pynchon is an inscrutable fuck), Gravity's Rainbow, 885 pages all told, contains no chapters, but is rather broken down into a series of (unnumbered in the text, of course!) episodes--81 in all. The plan is to read two or three episodes at a time, resulting in 35 total blog entries. Regular features will include Progress (how far I am into the book), a brief Plot Summary, pithy (I hope) Analysis, and Approximate Level of Irritation with the (notoriously difficult to read) Book (1 = actually looking forward to reading; 5 = semi-dreading my next go-round; 10 = throwing book against the wall, then jumping up and down on its pages, while pulling out my hair and screaming "fuck you, Pynchon! Fuck you!!")

  • Best of the Decade: inspired by Misha's challenge to me to create a list of the top 10 albums of this current decade [note: challenge accepted], this project will entail a series of "best of" lists for the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s. Tentatively, I'm looking at listing the best films, TV shows, albums, books, and video games for the five decades in questions. Disclaimer: I'll need to find an alternative for video games for the 60s and 70s (unless we can all agree that cup and ball is eligible)--this may end up being best sports moments, or potentially something a bit more esoteric. The plan at the moment is to tackle one decade a month, starting in January. There may or may not be an upcoming poll posted on my blog to let reader(s) vote on which decade they'd like to see first...which may or may not be shamefacedly removed from the site by me after receiving fewer than four votes total.

  • The Wedding Blog (official title pending): that's right, we're barely three months in to my career as a blogger and I've already gone mad with power. The first manifestation of this: did someone say spinoff? More on this another time.

  • The Top 25 Sports Movies of All-Time: hopefully fairly self-explanatory.

  • Shuk and I have talked about doing a Top 25 Arrested Development moments, but one of us (me) has been pretty derelict in his duties, so this one will have to wait until '08.

c. Upcoming Posts
Carrie and I are off to Ireland on December 20th, which, by my count, is roughly seven weeks away. That, combined with the vagaries of school--three exams, studying for said exams, and one paper--means that my blogging year is rapidly drawing to a close. (Carrie swears they have the internet in Ireland, but I remain unconvinced.) What you can count (more or less) is the following:

  • The Top 15 Movies of 2007
  • The Top 15 Albums of 2007
  • The Top 15 TV Shows of 2007
  • The Two-Thirds(ish) NFL Recap
  • A Kid Nation Season (slash--probably--"series") Finale Running Diary
  • The first (of--in theory--35) Gravity's Rainbow entry

The first three are certain; the next three are subject to time constraints and/or availability of material.

And, when I get back in January (presumably): The Top 25 Ways I Embarrassed Myself and My Fiancee's Family in Ireland (just kidding, baby! Five, tops. Maybe seven). Failing that, count on a blathering (not to be confused with "blistering") review of Joyce's Ulysses, which I plan on reading on the trip.