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.


RT Murphy said...

Good review. I'll talk about some of the things here at the office but I think otherwise I might just do a post in response.

French Bulldog Blog said...

Hmm, very interesting.