Perverted plutocrats, a Hollywood madam with a narcissism problem, prostitutes with attitude, indulgent rich kids — Jonathan Kellerman's latest novel has so many unpleasant characters it would be wearying to read if the plot didn't move like a bullet train.
Kellerman himself is unapologetic. "I like to create twisted characters," he says with a laugh. "It's just what I do: I'm a psychologist. Ever since I've been a kid I've had a fascination with the darker side of things."
The author, 61, is not a dark guy. Wearing faded jeans and a black mock-turtleneck, he's sitting in a room that includes shelves of books, a painting canvas, a pool table and a view of his ample yard and swimming pool. The life he's made for himself from Southern California's sun-kissed brand of malevolence includes more than 40 million books in print in the U.S. alone and three other published novelists in the family. All that, as well as the vintage guitars he's collected over the years, clearly makes him happy.
For a man with a gate around his property — what appears to be a brick Southern mansion dropped down into Beverly Hills — Kellerman has a very open manner. "There are cynics who say that all relationships are basically a purchase of some kind," he says. "I'm kind of a romantic, so I don't want to think that."
Whether he thinks it or not, the theme of prostitution — borderline or full-on, high-tech and high-end or low-down and old-fashioned — runs through his new novel, which Ballantine publishes this week. "Mystery" is the 26th of his Alex Delaware novels, in which a child psychologist teams up with beefy, sharp-witted LAPD Lt. Milo Sturgis to solve cases that would otherwise baffle the department.
Besides allowing him to create a wish-fulfillment version of himself, the Delaware character allows Kellerman to draw from his psychological training — his doctorate in clinical psychology and his years working as a pediatric psychologist and therapist for children.
The novel begins with the demolition of a cozy old hotel on Crescent Drive whose bar has attracted an enigmatic, overdressed young woman who is found dead shortly after.
While the book roams to the Inland Empire and the wilds of the west San Fernando Valley, much of its action takes place in and around the Internet. "I'm fascinated with the way technology always outstrips everything," Kellerman says, "especially morality. And, of course, the novelist in me thinks, 'What if it goes really wrong?'"
Kellerman was born in New York City during a period in which his parents — an electrical engineer and homemaker — were borderline homeless. After living in what he describes as tenements on the Lower East Side and in the Bronx, his family bought a small house in Queens, only to have it condemned for an expressway. So in 1959, in part because of the Southland's burgeoning aerospace industry, his father took the family to Los Angeles.
Enrolling at UCLA at 16, Kellerman found himself swept into a fascination with child psychology and pediatrics. Three years after graduating, he picked up a masters and a USC doctorate in clinical psychology. He worked various jobs at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and got a charge out of helping children with cancer. He'd also gotten married young and begun to have kids of his own. But he'd always wanted to write, and he spent evenings typing various structure-deprived novels.
"I had a really good job as a psychologist. I was basically a happy guy, except for this gnawing within me that I wasn't getting published." As the rejection slips began to pile up over about a dozen years, "I started to think, 'Am I psychotic?'"
His breakthrough came unexpectedly. He was heading to the hospital one morning and saw an antiques shop on Sunset with a going-out-of-business sale. He picked up a Ross Macdonald novel, "The Underground Man," which cost him a dime. Reading it later, something clicked. "I said, 'This guy is a psychologist!' " Kellerman picked up the influence of Freud on these private-eye novels. "I thought, 'I'm a psychologist: Maybe if I'm good enough, I can bring something special.'"
Macdonald's Lew Archer novels — and Joseph Wambaugh's police procedurals — offered an orientation for Kellerman.
Even after he shifted to writing crime novels, it wasn't clear he'd succeed. His first book, "When the Bough Breaks," which touched on child sexual abuse and introduced Delaware and Sturgis, took two years to sell and two more years to be published. "The advance was so small. I got three bucks an hour for it."
And while the book's publication justified the 13 years he'd struggled to get it into print, Kellerman figured writing would remain a hobby. But then came another novel, and another, all bestsellers. After he'd written five novels, Kellerman was able to quit full-time practice.
Steady work ethic
Like some of the other trademark bestselling author "brands," Kellerman is remarkably consistent: Typically, at least one novel appears in the first few months of the year. Some years see more than one. The author doesn't see it as especially difficult.
"A book is about 400 pages of manuscript," he says flatly. "I write about five pages a day, so after 80 days you have a book," which then can be polished and edited. It also allows him to work a little ahead: He's recently turned in another Alex Delaware novel — "the darkest book I've ever written, it plunges into the depths of madness" — to be published March 2012.
Kellerman's work ethic runs in the family, and it's partly responsible for the clan of writers he now belongs to. His wife, Faye, writes bestselling mysteries, most of them featuring the husband-and-wife duo of Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, some of which explore Jewish themes.
Their eldest and youngest children are also published writers: Jesse, 32, is an award-winning playwright and the author of four novels, and Aliza, a college student of 18, co-wrote the 2009 young-adult novel "Prism" with her mother. (The Kellermans' other two children work in clinical psychology.)
Faye Kellerman says it was her husband's decade of literary struggle that inspired her, not his success. Like him, she'd wanted to write novels but put it aside as she studied dentistry and raised children.
"If he'd been successful right away, I wouldn't have dared try," she says. "It was the fact that he was persisting in the face of adversity. It was seeing that there was no shame in failing."
She wrote several novels she didn't show anyone and then, after putting a coming-of-age novel into the drawer, showed Jonathan a mystery called "The Ritual Bath," telling him he wouldn't like it. The book was published in 1986, and most her novels since then have been bestsellers.
"My parents aren't over-intellectual author stereotypes," Aliza Kellerman says. "They're two of the most down-to-earth, friendly people you'll ever meet. I think that's why their success never intimidated me. Rather, it filled me with the idea that you can do what you love, make a living off of it and still be the type of person other people want to grab a cup of coffee with."