Judaism Pervades Writer's Life and Her Plots

Times Staff Writer

When Faye Kellerman was little, she used to climb into the apricot tree in her Sherman Oaks back yard and fantasize, sometimes speaking lines from her daydreams out loud. "Is this child normal?" her grandmother would fret.

Now 37, Kellerman climbs into the office studio above her bedroom and fantasizes still. She figured out long ago that "if I can put it down on paper then I'm a writer, not a weirdo."

Kellerman, who lives in Beverlywood, recently published her third and most ambitious novel, a 600-page mystery set in Elizabethan England titled "The Quality of Mercy."

Like her earlier, contemporary mysteries, "The Ritual Bath" and "Sacred and Profane," the new novel features a pair of seriously star-crossed lovers. Rebecca Lopez, the exotic protagonist of "The Quality of Mercy," is a conversa, a secret Jew posing as an Anglican in Elizabethan England, where Judaism was outlawed from 1290 until Oliver Cromwell lifted the ban in 1656.

Imaginative Account

Cursed with a good mind in a bad century for women, Lopez falls in love with a silver-tongued playwright named William Shakespeare, who is neither Jewish nor single. The rest is historical suspense fiction, including a highly imaginative account of how Shakespeare came to write "The Merchant of Venice."

Kellerman will sign copies of "The Quality of Mercy," published by William Morrow & Co., on July 20 at Vagabond Books in Westwood.

Although much of "The Quality of Mercy" is fanciful, it is grounded in Kellerman's considerable knowledge of a great many subjects. "I write about what I know," Kellerman said, and, as the author's blurb on one of her books indicates, that covers a lot of territory. She "is not only a gifted storyteller but a dentist, an expert fencer, a musician who plays four instruments, a guitar maker--and the mother of three young children."

She is also the wife of psychologist-turned-mystery writer Jonathan Kellerman, who works at his own word processor in another part of their sprawling Westside home. Her husband is her favorite mystery writer, Kellerman said unhesitantly, and the couple regularly critique each other's work. "It took many years to learn how to do that without having a cold night," she noted.

Kellerman sought training in dentistry because "I thought it would be a good profession to practice. It still may be. I don't know." Although she has done only volunteer work as a dentist, she considers it excellent preparation for her career as a mystery writer. "I have a very good knowledge of anatomy and forensics." In "Sacred and Profane," a forensic dentist helps solve a murder by tipping the police to the likelihood that the victim was deaf--a deduction she makes from the condition of the dead woman's teeth.

What the publisher's blurb fails to mention is Kellerman's knowledge and love of Orthodox Judaism, which pervades her daily life. The Kellermans live where they do, in part, so they can walk to their temple on the Sabbath. Her ketubah --her marriage contract, beautifully hand-lettered in Hebrew--hangs in a place of honor over the fireplace.

The realities of observant Jewish life also inform her novels. Rina Lazarus, the heroine of Kellerman's modern mysteries, packs kosher brown-bag lunches of salmon and noodle kugel for the man she loves--big, red-headed police detective Peter Decker. But her religious values don't allow her to entertain him overnight without benefit of marriage.

"I thought the Orthodox Jewish world was a very interesting one that had not been portrayed accurately in the medium," Kellerman said. She fact-checks all matters of Halakha, or Jewish law, with Orthodox rabbis, but her meticulousness has not exempted her from criticism from some parts of the Jewish community. She has been chided for setting a scene of sexual violence at an Orthodox ritual bath.

On the other hand, she said, she gets fan mail from young Orthodox women who say they identify with feisty Rina Lazarus.

Kellerman likes Rina, too, but she emphasizes that she is not Rina or any of her other characters. Rina might not approve of the fact that Kellerman, though married, does not cover her cascade of brown curls, as Orthodox women traditionally do. "I admire her," Kellerman said, "but I'm not going to cover my hair just because she does."

Fiction gives Kellerman the opportunity to explore alternative lives, if only in her mind. "It's fun writing because you put yourself into other worlds," she said. Kellerman says she has no trouble getting inside the skin of Decker, the Los Angeles police detective, raised a Baptist, who is so unlike his creator.

"I can feel what he's like," she said. "There's a very masculine side to me. Maybe that's why I took all those math and science courses."

Kellerman also attributes some of Decker's authenticity to the hours she spent with her brothers, and to a good ear. "I listen to people," she said. "I'm a big eavesdropper."

Kellerman has finished two more books featuring Decker and Lazarus, "Milk and Honey," to be published next year, and "Day of Atonement," scheduled for 1991.

Demanding Project

"The Quality of Mercy" was a far more demanding project than a modern mystery, Kellerman said, because of the extensive research involved.

Her initial idea for the book, about three years ago, was to have Shakespeare and Shylock from "The Merchant of Venice" solve a crime. Later, she came upon an account of the life and death of Roderigo Lopez, (the father of her heroine), the physician to Queen Elizabeth, a converso who was executed for treason at the instigation of the Earl of Essex.

Kellerman's book is both a mystery and a fictional account of what happened to Lopez. It is a work of the imagination--it includes, for instance, a scene in which Queen Elizabeth takes the heroine to bed ("I figured, 'What the hey,' " Kellerman said, "this is fiction"). But every word, every detail, had to be grounded in fact.

It wasn't easy, the author said. She learned that the Elizabethans didn't eat tomatoes--they believed they were poisonous--that an improperly doffed hat was deemed an insult, and that the word incontinently meant "immediately" to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She studied Elizabethan history, culture, medicine, cooking.

She also learned as much as possible about "The Merchant of Venice." She found, though, that she could not read the plays and poems of Shakespeare while she was trying to write about him. "To put words into his mouth was terribly intimidating," she recalled, and his body of work "showed too much of the genius and not enough of the human being."

She decided not to have her fictional Shakespeare quote real Shakespearean lines, as some other writers have done. "He can't talk like a poet all of the time," she said. "Sometimes you yell at your spouse, and you don't do it in verse!"

Writing "The Quality of Mercy," Kellerman said, left her with the conviction that crime doesn't change and that she was "really glad to be living in the 20th Century."

Shuddering at the thought of both Elizabethan sanitation and anti-Semitism, she said: "You can keep your courtly behavior, just give me my microwave. Good title for a country-Western song, nu ?"

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