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Onyx reviews: Killer by Jonathan Kellerman

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 02/05/2014

Jonathan Kellerman takes series character Alex Delaware back to his roots by focusing in large part on his private practice, something that is often neglected. Killer's opening section deals with Alex agreeing to take on consulting work involving child custody cases. The work is rewarding, his commitment to an individual case is not onerous and the compensation more than adequate.

However, getting between two people who want the same thing can bring about unexpected risks. The book's prolog shows Alex's life being threatened—albeit subtly—by a woman who has just lost in her attempt to gain custody of her sister's infant daughter, Rambla (so named for the street where she was conceived, father unknown). Constance Sykes is affluent and her sister, Cherie, is not. That, in her mind, is sufficient justification to take the child. Her sister is flighty, a latter-day flower child who, at one point, left Rambla in Connie's care for nearly three months while she traveled with a band. Alex's brief and to-the-point evaluation of the situation carried great influence with the judge, who ruled in the mother's favor. Cherie Sykes might not have the same advantages as her older sister, but she was obviously a good mother to Rambla.

After Connie Sykes issues her veiled threat, Milo tells Alex that the woman has attempted to take out a contract on his life. By now, readers will think they know who the book's title refers to—but they will be wrong. After Connie is murdered and her shy and kindly sister Cherie disappears with Rambla, Milo is sure he knows who's responsible. Other murders and attempted murders follow, all involving people in Cherie's circle of friends. 

Everyone Alex and Milo talk to, including the members of the band Cherie hung out with, thinks she's harmless. Literally wouldn't hurt a spider. Has she hoodwinked everyone, including a trained and experienced psychologist? To his credit, Alex doesn't descend into depression at having gotten things so obviously wrong. He's concerned for the baby and what might happen to her if she's raised by a psychotic killer who was able to pull the wool over his eyes, but he's not quick to relinquish his original assessment, either, which causes some friction between him and Milo, who doggedly follows the evidence. 

Killer is one of the better Delaware novels in a while. It treats the characters with respect, never using them as pawns to advance the plot. When Alex learns that Constance Sykes is a threat to the family, he tells his long-time companion Robin about the situation and apologizes to her. Even when pursuing his own investigation, he doesn't ditch Robin as he has done so often in the past. He takes time out to keep her up to date, and delays meetings to have dinner with her. By the same token, he doesn't follow Milo around constantly. He has a life independent of his pro bono consulting work with the LAPD. He does take a few risks in following his own line of investigation, but more often than not he lets the system work, calling in reinforcements when he gets in over his head.

One of the book's more interesting aspects is the introduction of a character from Alex's past, Efren "Effo" Casagrande, who came to him as a contentious youngster who refused to take his insulin injections to combat diabetes. Alex flashes back to those early encounters, when he was able to connect with the boy and show him the importance of paying attention to his health. His intervention paid off, as Effo, who is now a mobster, returns the favor in an unexpected way. The scenes between Effo and Alex—both in flashback and in the contemporary action—are among the best in the novel.

The resolution will probably come as a surprise. It doesn't exactly come out of left field—Kellerman leaves clues that make sense in retrospect—but it's doubtful that readers will guess who is really responsible for the killings. After twenty-nine books featuring Alex Delaware, Kellerman proves that his long-running series still has legs.

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