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Onyx reviews: Obsession by Jonathan Kellerman

Alex Delaware is an obsessed man. The signs have been there in the previous twenty books that feature him. Surrender has never been an option, even long after his personal investment in a case should have passed. From some perspectives, he may seem heroic, but he isn't interested in being a hero-he simply can't give up once he starts pursuing something.

In the aptly titled Obsession, readers learn that a young Alex did indeed suffer from obsessive-compulsive tendencies. So, too, did one of his patients, a teenager whose mother abandoned her to the care of her aunt Patty when she was a few years old. Tanya Bigelow turns out to be a unique patient, one able to grasp both the causes and manifestations of her illness and who has the will to correct her abnormal behavior.

Tanya is now nineteen and studying to be a doctor. Patty recently succumbed to cancer and on her deathbed she said something that suggests she was responsible for someone's death. Obsession starts off as a promising exploration of the stressors that can give rise to compulsive behavior but soon veers off into another tale of Alex's single-minded obsession. It's not the worst of Kellerman's novels, but it relies on some of the series' weaknesses.

The fundamental premise is weak. Patty's deathbed "confession" is so nebulous that it could mean just about anything. She admits to doing a terrible thing, perhaps killing someone, but there are absolutely no details to anchor the event in time or space. It's hard to believe any detective, even an outsider like Milo Sturgis, would devote any time to investigating the scant clues available, let alone the entire LAPD. This isn't a cold case—it's not a case of any sort. No victim, no motive, no location…nothing.

It's also hard to fathom why Tanya would bother pursuing the confused statement of a woman hopped up on painkillers. She may be a self-aware young lady intent on obtaining closure, but it's a big leap when the resulting investigation might damage her mother's reputation.

It's a good thing Alex's early years as a child psychologist left him independently wealthy, because almost everything he does these days is pro bono. He's the ideal person to set loose on this type of tenuous case, because he's unflappable, tenacious and has nothing but free time on his hands.

The only person to treat his companion, Robin, worse than Alex does is Kellerman. Even though he brought her back to Alex from temporary, self-imposed exile, her principle role is in being absent. She goes on business trips or off to visit friends. It seems that Kellerman doesn't know what to do with her, how to make her part of Alex's life. Hell, Alex's new dog gets better screen time than Robin does.

Milo's partner gets only marginally better treatment. Patty was a nurse who worked with Rick, the surgeon, so he has a vested interest in the case. Still, his appearance is a glorified cameo. Fortunately he isn't predisposed to getting involved in Milo's investigations, so Kellerman doesn't have to send him away to get him offstage.

Kellerman also enlists the help of his occasional character Petra Connor, though in a supporting role, and her former aide-de-camp, computer genius Isaac Gomez, who is conveniently sent abroad after one appearance so he can't be too helpful.

Though one character describes the case as a genuine whodunit, the truth is there isn't much mystery here. The new investigation makes the original culprits nervous, and more bodies start turning up in short order. Once the clues start to fall into place, the identity of the sociopathic killer is obvious to anyone who's ever read a crime novel. Kellerman attempts to up the tension by implying Tanya is in grave jeopardy, but she never seems to be truly at risk. If she really is in danger, the way Alex and Milo repeatedly minimize her situation in her presence seems ill advised.

Kellerman has a tendency toward seriously dysfunctional families, and the one that comes under Alex and Milo's scrutiny has it all. Patty Bigelow and her adoptive daughter are conventional and normal compared to the Bedards, who for all their wealth can't get it together.

A strength of Kellerman's books is the brainstorming sessions that Milo and Alex engage in. Creatively they are brilliant, as the two characters try to piece together the puzzle. As often as not, they pursue false leads in exploring every avenue and evaluating each lead from all perspectives. It's a very realistic process, even though the scenes where they wrestle to identify fact from fabrication tend to go on a little too long at times.

It's difficult to say exactly where Kellerman misses the mark with Obsession. None of the characters behave uncharacteristically—and that's not an impediment, either. Many series go on book after book with a core group of characters who are as reliable and predictable as the day is long. The weak link, perhaps, is the plot, which launches from a very weak statement into a full-fledged investigation. So long as the story focuses on Tanya's recurring OCD, the book is captivating, but Tanya gets pushed aside and the story goes downhill. Perhaps Kellerman should return to Alex's strengths as a psychologist instead of pursuing his obsession as a knight forever tilting at windmills.

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