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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
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
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