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Onyx reviews: Monster by Jonathan Kellerman

Psychologist Alex Delaware is back in Jonathan Kellerman's new novel, Monster, after a brief hiatus in Billy Straight. Delaware, a child psychologist whose success has allowed him to retire from practice and take only cases that are of interest to him, also consults with the Los Angeles police department. In "Monster" it seems like he has very little else to occupy his time but trail around after friend and associate Detective Milo Sturgis. He not only provides psychological insight into the case under investigation, he helps Milo run down such routine leads as attempting to trace some stolen film equipment.

The monster of the title is an inmate at Starkweather, a hospital for the criminally insane. Every one of the 1200-plus residents at this institution has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial for murder. A few of the inmates are shams, trying to avoid prison or the death penalty by faking mental illness, but in this environment, where mental pathologies are rampant, the phonies are soon flushed out.

Alex and Milo are investigating two brutal murders that are similar enough to convince the detective that they are related. In both cases, the victims, one a would-be actor and the other a psychologist from Starkweather, were found in the trunks of cars with their eyes removed or mutilated. "The Monster," Ardis Peake, institutionalized for over fifteen years for killing a family. Peake, who has been noncommunicative for years, has been recorded saying things that appear to predict other murders. Peake is completely cut off from the outside world, it seems. There's no way he should have any inside knowledge of these crimes.

Most of the book is an exploration of the personality of Claire Argent and her purpose in going to work at Starkweather. Alex peels away the layers of her complex psyche. She has demons of her own which have caused her to live a sterile life, to push away her family, divorce her husband and give up a successful career to take a position at Starkweather, where the cure rate is effectively zero. Alex and Milo have to draw together clues from across the country and across the years to put the entire story together before too many more mutilated corpses turn up.

Kellerman's books have been guaranteed bestsellers almost from the beginning of his career. There were some signs that Delaware was beginning to wear out his welcome, which may be why he published Billy Straight last year, a refreshing change of pace. Monster acknowledges that success with a brief character cross-over near the end, in much the same way that Kellerman couldn't do without Delaware completely in Billy Straight.

One difficulty with the more recent Kellerman novels is that the crimes they explore are sterile and personal. The culprits are typically psychopaths who are playing games, committing crimes on a whim or for some unfathomable, twisted purpose. The investigation, from the reader's point of view, seems to be mostly an exercise in logic, which is fine, but there is an emotional distance from the story that keeps the reader from really caring about the victims and the resolution of the crime. Kellerman also does not always play fair. In one scene, Alex and Milo are brainstorming over possible scenarios for one of the murders and they disingeniously skip over one very obvious permutation that turns out to be the correct one. An astute reader would cry "foul."

All this is not to say that Monster is not a good book. It's probably Kellerman's best Delaware novel in several years. His success with non-Delaware books, however, makes one wonder if the good doctor shouldn't take more vacations.

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