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Onyx reviews: Gone by Jonathan Kellerman

Gone starts with a bang. An old man driving a mountain road outside L.A. narrowly avoids hitting a naked young woman who claims she and a friend were car-jacked, abducted and tortured. Turns out the budding actors staged the kidnapping in a desperate attempt to launch their careers, hoping the publicity would attract the interest of someone in Tinseltown. However, the wheels quickly fall off their scheme and the two find themselves prosecuted for filing false police reports and forgotten by the media.

Michaela Brand is referred to psychologist Alex Delaware for evaluation. The 23-year-old blames her fellow student, Dylan Meserve for the scheme. Shortly after their final session, Brand turns up dead and Meserve is missing. The case falls to Alex's longtime friend, Detective Milo Sturgis. Since Alex has a vested interest, he tags along during the investigation.

Gone is the twentieth Delaware novel. The series' strength has generally been more in the interplay between Alex and Milo than in the cases themselves, but the books are better when one of Alex's patients is the motivator rather than merely one of Milo's investigations. Gone is a marginal situation. Though Brand was technically a patient, their relationship was brief and superficial.

Alex has become less interesting since he first appeared in When the Bough Breaks in 1985. Self-absorbed and introspective to a fault, he could use some professional help of his own. His long-term relationship with luthier-to-the-stars Robin Castagna fell apart a few books back, and his current romance with analyst Allison Gwynn is foundering. These secondary characters have rarely been explored in much depth. They're little more than Alex's baggage. People to get upset when he becomes overly involved in risky criminal investigations. Women to lie to, hide things from and make excuses to. Given how flat he has become emotionally, it's little wonder that they are conflicted about him.

The murder investigation in Gone is not straight forward. Instead of narrowing the list of suspects, each piece of information adds new people to the circle. New murders, too, and old ones that may be related. The mystery appears to center around the acting school where Brand and Meserve studied their craft and an odd family of property owners associated with it.

Astute readers may identify the perpetrator early on, which will frustrate them because much of the book is taken up by Alex and Milo tossing theories back and forth, dancing around the obvious, or running around Los Angeles to interview witnesses, suspects and persons of interest. At times it seems like their intrusions do more harm than good, especially when they recklessly sow seeds of suspicion about certain characters in the minds of gossipy neighbors.

Even when the conspiracy starts to come apart, things don't become clearer. Several questions about motivation and opportunity remain at the end. Kellerman relies on a great deal of speculation to explain certain crimes.

Why does Alex remain obsessed with the case when it threatens to go cold? None of the victims or suspects are terribly compelling, and he has other concerns vying for his attention-his rekindling affair with Robin, or the colleague accused of sexual assault who seems intent on hurting him for providing unfavorable testimony.

It's also difficult to believe that Milo would remain marginalized in the LAPD because of his sexual orientation, which is much less of an issue in his daily life than in earlier books in the series.

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