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Onyx reviews: Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

The first set of remains are found beneath the roots of a fifty-foot sycamore that fell during a recent storm. The smell of the previous homeowner, Mrs. Hannah, who had lived there for fifty-two years, permeates the woodwork, or at least that's what one of the current residents thinks. Holly Ruche's senses are sensitive these days: she's late in her pregnancy when she uncovers the blue metal box buried beneath the tree and is understandably distressed by what she finds inside.

The bones are wrapped in pages from a newspaper that indicate that the burial is from the early 1950s. That makes it a very cold case, but Milo Sturgis investigates all the same, with his loyal companion Alex Delaware at his side. Few people remember the residents of the house in 1951-52. Official records are spotty or missing, and the trail of ownership is difficult to follow. However, against all odds, Delaware turns up a very specific clue: a rare automobile several people remember seeing parked in the driveway on a few occasions during the year in question. Very rare—only a few thousand were ever made, and the details of this specific car narrow down the potential owners even farther. It's the unlikely sort of clue that makes a reader wonder if a writer is getting desperate. Not exactly deus ex machina, but close.

Fortunately, Guilt isn't primarily about that cold case. It's more of a catalyst, as well as something for Delaware to work on during idle moments in the contemporary case. A few days after Holly Ruche's gruesome discovery, a second infant skeleton is found in Cheviot Hills Park, which is located in an affluent neighborhood. Another body, that of an unidentified young woman shot execution style, is found on the opposite side of the park shortly thereafter.

Whereas Sturgis was able to use his contacts in the local media to publicize the first case, this option isn't available to him now. Influential people live near Cheviot Hills—politicians concerned about lucrative real estate development plans that could be jeopardized by negative publicity. The question on everyone's minds, though, is whether there can be any connection between the two cases. It seems too much of a coincidence that baby bones should turn up within days of each other, but too unlikely that the same perpetrator could have committed crimes sixty years apart.

In some of Kellerman's novels, Sturgis and Delaware embark on brainstorming sessions where they come up with a series of ideas based on flimsy evidence, ideas that later prove to be completely accurate. They brainstorm here, but it's good to see that some of their notions end up to be far, far off the mark, even though they act on them as if they were solid. This is the way the real world works. Just because bones are used in Haitian voodoo rituals doesn't mean witch doctors or cults are behind the recent killings. Its refreshing to see an author allowing his characters to be fallible. Not every shot has to hit the target.

Because this case isn't as cold as the other, the possibility of living witnesses presents itself, although the investigation is hampered because neither of the victims can be identified. Sturgis uses back door channels to exploit the media, risking the wrath of his supervisors, but like most renegade cops of fiction, Sturgis doesn't care and he's more or less bulletproof because of his exceptional solve rate. Once the dead woman's identity is revealed, the case heats up. Sturgis and Delaware retrace the path this woman took in life, from Idaho to San Diego and, ultimately, to her death in a Los Angeles park.

Eventually, the trail leads to the compound owned by celebrities who may at first remind readers of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, although the resemblance is circumstantial. Again, first impressions and initial speculations about what is going on within the enclave is far off the mark, and the truth is more interesting than these notions. Delaware also manages to put a bow on the cold case, but this storyline, which dominates the novel's opening chapters, has a less splashy conclusion than the more recent deaths.

The book's title is somewhat elusive. A note found with one of the victims proclaims "This is guilt," but it is never made clear what that means, and the person behind the contemporary murders seems remarkably free of feelings of guilt. The word itself appears no more than a handful of times in the text. The stated explanation for the connection between the two sets of infant remains also stretches credibility. It seems more a matter of plot convenience than the type of thing anyone would do in real life, no matter how twisted and divorced from reality they are.  

Delaware uses his psychological training more in this novel than he has in recent books. In one subplot, he has sessions with a reluctant Holly Ruche. Discovering the buried baby triggered insecurities and concerns about her relationship with her husband and her own baby. It's good to see Delaware plying his trade instead of acting like an amateur—and obsessive, reckless—sleuth all the time. He also meets professionally with one of the compound's residents, and it is that role that enables Sturgis and him to get to the bottom of the mystery more than anything else.

Delaware's lover, Robin, makes a few token appearances, but it seems like Kellerman doesn't know what to do with her, and Sturgis's partner doesn't appear on stage at all. Delaware's dog makes more of an impression than the most important people in the lead characters' lives. That's a minor quibble, but an ongoing issue with the Alex Delaware series, which is now closing in on its thirtieth entry.

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