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Onyx reviews: Mystery by Jonathan Kellerman

The investigation into the crime at the heart of Jonathan Kellerman's latest Alex Delaware novel probably wouldn't have gained much traction if not for the fact that Alex and Robin saw the victim a few hours before she was murdered. It was a chance encounter at a favorite bar that is about to close for good. The beautiful young woman, who seemed to be putting on airs, also appeared to be waiting for someone. Alex and Robin saw someone loitering outside the bar, a driver or a body guard who they assumed was with her. When homicide Lieutenant Milo Sturgis shows Alex photos of the crime scene, he's able to provide detailed descriptions of the woman (whose face was obliterated by two different kinds of bullets, as if she were gunned down by a firing squad) and her presumed companion, who becomes the prime suspect.

Alex dismisses this coincidence as the sort of thing that was bound to happen eventually, but it doesn't ring true. It sets up an expectation in readers that this seemingly random encounter—the sort of thing that might happen in real life but stretches the bounds of credibility in fiction—will prove to part of something bigger. Unfortunately, it doesn't. It's almost a shortcut on Kellerman's part, a way of getting the investigation underway faster than it would have otherwise.

The book's title refers to one of the victim's aliases. Unidentified for much of the book, she could be a princess or a porn star, or anything in between. An anonymous tip (another deus ex machina contribution to the novel) sends Alex and Lieutenant Milo Sturgis to a web service that sets up sugar daddies with young women ("sweeties") looking for someone to take care of them. The trail leads to love nests, rehab centers, various houses, a car leasing agency, a clinic that tests for venereal diseases and a wealthy, dysfunctional family with a few skeletons in the closet, all providing more than a novel's worth of potential suspects.

Though Milo shows up occasionally, usually in time for a huge meal, and there are the obligatory cameos by characters from Kellerman's other series, much of the detecting in Mystery is done by Alex himself, and most of that using search engines. Milo's impressive success rate for homicides grants him a certain amount of latitude, but his rank requires him to attend meetings that pull him away from the investigation. Alex has become his de facto partner, though his affiliation with the police is nebulous. That doesn't stop him from stretching the truth, implying a much more formal arrangement. He uses this to pressure witnesses, suspects and even police department employees into violating confidences, while strictly maintaining his own. 

When his long-time companion Robin volunteers to go on a stakeout with him, Alex tells her she'll be bored. That doesn't discourage her—and her presence actually helps him with his cover—but it's clear that she cramps his style. He's a lone wolf who willingly throws himself into dangerous situations without any consideration for how that might impact others. He could probably do with a little time on the couch having his own psyche and motives analyzed. Though Alex and Robin briefly process what happens between them after they get home, it feels like a missed opportunity to develop their relationship.

Mystery has a subplot involving a madam with terminal cancer. She browbeats Alex into talking to her young son to make sure he'll be able to handle the trauma of her death. She's a colorful character, and is peripherally involved with the case, but this storyline feels thin and perfunctory. Subplots deserve their own arcs, and this one is linear and undisturbed by any real tension or complication.

The resolution of the murder mystery is long and complex, and hinges on evidence Alex gathers off-stage and a type of weird medical happenstance that seems drawn from the TV series House. It takes Alex several pages to explain it all, and he's talking to the perpetrator, who, presumably, already knows most of these details. Not a good sign.

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