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Onyx reviews: Compulsion by Jonathan Kellerman

The titles of recent Alex Delaware novels by Jonathan Kellerman have itemized emotional traits. There was Rage, and then Obsession and now Compulsion, the 22nd novel featuring the child psychologist who freelances with the LAPD, almost exclusively with his long-time friend Milo Sturgis. Sturgis was once an outsider in the department, marginalized because of his sexual orientation. The new chief, however, doesn't care who sleeps with whom, and Milo's record for clearing homicide cases makes him the poster child for the department. He gets to pick and choose his cases.

At the beginning of Compulsion, Milo is freshly back from a vacation in Hawaii with his partner Rick. He was supposed to be recovering from shotgun injuries he suffered working on a previous case, but he seems listless and verging on depression when Alex meets with him for dinner. Much is made of his ennui, but once he gets back in the saddle, his malaise is rarely mentioned again. It's as if Kellerman forgot.

It's also not quite clear to whom the title refers. Alex suffers from a compulsion to get involved in police cases far beyond what his (lapsed) credentials encourage or allow. However, the new chief is a renaissance man when it comes to criminal investigation. He has read some of Alex's papers and encourages Milo to use Alex, offering him a pittance in compensation for his time. When Alex travels to NY to gather background on a suspect, the LAPD puts him up in a fleabag hotel and offers a per diem that might buy hot dogs from a street vendor. As Alex has demonstrated innumerable times in the past, he would willingly help for free.

The case that forms the backbone of Compulsion almost doesn't rise to the level of something Milo would get involved with. One of his protégés, an officer who has been shunted around the department because he lacks imagination, calls Milo when he finds a Bentley abandoned on the side of the road with what looks like a smear of blood on its otherwise pristine seats. The car was stolen the night before, they learn, and while they take a sample of the substance and send it into the long queue to be tested, the incident seems like a dead end.

When an elderly woman is murdered in broad daylight in front of her home, and the culprit is observed escaping in another black luxury vehicle, also stolen and returned to a rental lot, Milo and Alex wonder if the cases are somehow connected. After some internet research, Alex finds a third case dating back nearly a decade where two women were murdered in a backwater town by someone driving a stolen high-priced car. Readers know that the plight of a self-absorbed young woman reported missing a week after a hedonistic night clubbing is probably connected, too, but it takes Alex and Milo a while to figure that out. What happens to her seems to have been orchestrated, as evidenced by the smell of gasoline near her vehicle, but Kellerman fails to tie up that loose end, nor does he explain why the details of her case prove to be so much at odds with the others.

Milo is also researching a cold case because a Texas death-row inmate is claiming responsibility for a number of crimes in an apparent attempt to delay his date with the executioner. The disappearance of a young black man while selling magazine subscriptions in an upscale neighborhood didn't attract much attention at the time and now, sixteen years later, there aren't many leads to go on. The inmate's other claims are debunked, so the chief pressures Milo to produce results when the LA case becomes the only one holding up the execution.

As usual, Alex injects himself into all of these investigations. His (on-again/off-again—currently on-again) wife, Robin, is busy working on a commission to build four new musical instruments that will keep her occupied and out of the book's plot most of the year. She and the family dog rarely gain much of Alex's attention, and the books where she is living with Alex versus the ones where they are separated differ only in that a few paragraphs are devoted to her actions in the former and a few are devoted to her absence in the latter. There is a very minor but intriguing subplot involving Robin's client that has an unexpected and satisfying resolution as a cautionary tale. All told, though, this storyline occupies no more than a handful of pages.

In series novels where the characters don't evolve, the plot becomes the primary barometer of an individual entry's success. The storylines in Compulsion, the way one clue leads to others and ultimately to the resolution of the crimes, will hold readers' interest, but certain of the villain's idiosyncrasies (the obsession with luxury vehicles, for example) seem to have been created simply to form the initial hint of linked crimes, far less important to the culprit than some of his other compulsions. In the final analysis, the evildoer, his pathologies and motives all remain something of an enigma. And, in a book filled with named characters that come and go over a matter of a few pages, when one alias of the culprit is revealed, readers may find themselves leafing back through the early sections of the book trying to remind themselves who exactly that was. A sentence or even a clause reminding the reader why that name might be familiar would readers about something that happened a couple of hundred pages earlier.

Compulsion is neither a bad book nor an outstanding one. It's simply another by-the-numbers entry in a series that has produced hits and misses over the past quarter century. The book can be enjoyed in one extended sitting and then set aside without long-term impact. There's little at stake for Alex. He isn't waxing philosophical over his age, and his private practice is reduced to a few sentences at the beginning of the book and ignored thereafter. In books where there has been something personal at risk for Alex, it's always something immediate. His life is being threatened now. His wife has left him now. Milo needs him now. He seems to lack a vision about his future, perhaps because Kellerman is afraid to age him out of a job. His brief journey to Manhattan gives readers the chance to see him out of his element, but it doesn't add any real nuance to the character. Alex in NY isn't noticeably different from Alex in LA.

The writing is clean, the dialog crisp, the evocation of Los Angeles effective. Occasionally Kellerman comes up with fresh similes that will bring a smile to readers' lips, but they seem calculated. The book seems to be lacking a soul.

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