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Onyx reviews: Dr. Death by Jonathan Kellerman

Dr. Jack Kevorkian's name is never invoked once in the latest Alex Delaware thriller, but it is clear that Kellerman derived his inspiration for the title character from the famous euthanasia advocate.

Unlike his real-life counterpart, Kellerman's Dr. Death has met his nemesis. Before the story opens, Dr. Eldon Mate is found dead in a rental van, his preferred venue for his work, hooked up to one of his trademark mercy-killing contraptions, violently and enthusiastically eviscerated. LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis, who has been enjoying a successful run solving murders, finds himself embroiled in a high profile, seemingly intractable case. He calls on his friend, psychologist Alex Delaware, to help profile the murderer.

For the first time in their lengthy relationship, Alex and Milo cannot collaborate freely. Alex has a potential conflict of interest: a recent client, Stacy Doss, is the daughter of one of Mate's "travelers." Her father, Richard, is a prime candidate for a suspect. Joanna Doss, who had been suffering from undiagnosed illnesses and debilitating depression, enlisted Mate's services without her husband's knowledge. Doss gives Alex permission to participate in the investigation, but Alex walks a tightrope with his ethical obligations to his client.

Richard Doss is far from the only suspect. Any family member or friend of Mate's prodigious client list could have exacted revenge on the mercy killer. Mate had proven to be above the law in numerous legal challenges. Still, the murder scene is not the work of an amateur. Someone with surgical skill caused the doctor's wounds and the killer took scrupulous care to hide all traces of his identity.

Alex's knows a lot about the Doss family, but he is also aware that some details of their lives have been hidden from him. Joanna's illness was unexplained even after numerous medical consultations, and her husband takes her subsequent suicide as a personal attack. Joanna had committed some offense against Richard for which she had not been forgiven. Their son, Eric, is another of Alex's suspects. Eric left university to care for his mother before her meeting with Dr. Death. Alex has witnessed the young man's simmering rage and has privileged information, arising from his treatment of his sister, that indicates an intelligent but troubled soul.

Milo is approached by an FBI agent, Leimart Fusco, who for several years has been obsessively on the trail of a serial killer linked to numerous deaths at health-care institutions, as well as a chain of gruesome murders that bear a strong resemblance to the Mate crime scene. Another potential suspect is from Mate's own family: an abandoned son with emotional and psychological problems who dropped out of society and lives on the streets. The police are also eager to speak with Mate's missing lawyer, Ray Haiselden, who runs a chain of coin-op laundromats when he wasn't defending Mate.

No shortage of suspects, but it is Richard Doss's name that keeps bubbling to the top of the list. Alex feels betrayed when two of Milo's minions arrest Doss at Alex's home, straining their friendship as never before.

In Dr. Death, Kellerman breathes new life into the relationship between Alex and Milo while at the same time creating a complex, layered story with multiple surprises at the end. Still, Kellerman couldn't resist injecting homicide detective Petra Connor, the hero of Billy Straight, into the story in cameo scenes that seem forced and self-conscious. He should rely on his regulars to carry the story, especially when it is as cleverly devised and implemented as in Dr. Death.

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