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Onyx reviews: The Murder Book by Jonathan Kellerman

How does an author breathe new life into a mystery series that has seen new books at the rate of one per year for nearly twenty years? By allowing one of the more interesting secondary characters take center stage. In recent books, series lead Alex Delaware has grown introverted, introspective and isolated. He started out as a consulting child psychologist assisting the police in cases where children were at risk. His involvement has grown to the point where in Flesh and Blood, the previous installment in the series, he'd become a veritable loose cannon, selfishly risking life and limb and deceiving those who cared about him as he rode a wave of exhilarating danger.

In The Murder Book, Alex receives an album containing dozens of graphic crime scene photographs. The words "The Murder Book"—a police term for the official case file pertaining to a homicide investigation—appear on the cover. Each picture is accompanied by a terse caption. "Seventeen-year-old Mexican girl, strangled by boyfriend."

Alex shows the book—a message?—to his longtime detective friend, Milo Sturgis. One photograph in particular intrigues Milo. It depicts a high school girl who was tortured, strangled, and dumped near a freeway ramp twenty years earlier.

The Murder Book is Milo's novel. While the overweight, irascible, gay homicide cop has been a regular in Kellerman's novels from the beginning, this is the first time the author has explored his past and his character to such an extent, a welcome change. Nearly a quarter of the book shows Milo's early years on the police force from his own point of view instead of being filtered through Alex's limited and distorting perspective.

The flashback section details rookie Milo's difficult experiences with his new partner, a hardened veteran named Pierce Schwinn. Milo was nearly thirty, his physique already tending toward portly and his probable sexual orientation a topic of debate within the department. The death of Janie Ingalls was Milo's eighth homicide case, but his first whodunit. Schwinn is a hard case who valued Milo as a partner primarily because he could spell, which meant that Milo gets to do the paperwork

The pair made some progress in the investigation, which led them to investigate a rowdy party in an affluent neighborhood, before they were split up and reassigned. Schwinn, already under Internal Affairs investigation, had been manipulated into taking early retirement. The crime went unsolved and Milo wonders if Schwinn sent the Murder Book to inspire him to reopen the case.

Of course, he and Alex take the bait and spend the rest of the book chasing after twenty-year-old clues. The trail is complex—their unofficial investigation is a little like an archeological dig. What becomes clear, though, is that there are powerful and possibly deadly people who—even after all this time—don't want the truth to be revealed. The past gives up its secrets grudgingly and Milo works doggedly to close a case that has bothered him for his entire career.

Meanwhile, Alex's relationship with longtime love interest Robin is at a crucial juncture. Unhappy with Alex's past behavior, she puts some space between them, by going on tour with a huge multiband ensemble to repair and maintain musical instruments. Alex is at times moody and depressed and completely undone by this change.

The Murder Book pulls the series out of a rut, dusts it off and demonstrates that the author can shake things up when necessary. This is probably Kellerman's finest Delaware novel in years.

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