Politics Percolate Through Kellerman Tale
The “monster” in Jonathan Kellerman’s latest Alex Delaware mystery seems easy enough to identify. He’s Ardis Peake, who slaughtered a farm family in the San Joaquin Valley town of Treadway 16 years ago. Ever since, he’s been locked up at Starkweather Hospital for the criminally insane in East Los Angeles, making no friends, receiving no visitors, twitching with “tardive symptoms” from massive doses of Thorazine, and hardly saying a word.
Suddenly, however, Peake begins talking. His cryptic utterances, overheard by a staff member, predict a series of brutal slayings in the outside world. One of the victims, Dr. Claire Argent, worked at Starkweather. LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis and his psychologist partner, Delaware, are baffled. What can the connection be?
In the course of their investigation, Kellerman brings the fictional hospital to dingy and cacophonous life. It’s a place where bureaucrats, technicians, drugs and elaborate security systems maintain control over 1,200 inmates who have committed the most atrocious crimes of which human beings are capable yet remain somehow innocent. “The wiring’s screwy,” a guard tells Delaware. “Some people just turn to garbage. They don’t kill for fun--from what I’ve seen, they don’t take much pleasure in life, period. If you can even call what they’re doing living.”
Unpleasant as it is, Starkweather is better than the alternative--the streets, Kellerman notes, blaming an “odd, cold-hearted alliance between right-wing misers who didn’t want to spend the money and left-wing ignoramuses who believed psychotics were political prisoners” for emptying most of California’s mental hospitals two decades ago and letting the ex-inmates drift into homelessness.
Politics, however, isn’t Kellerman’s forte. He excels instead at plotting, dialogue, procedural detail and insight into abnormal states of mind. Fans will be glad to know that all these strengths are on display in “Monster,” along with a collection of minor characters so pungent that we’re willing to forgive Delaware for being smug and long-winded and, as fictional sleuths go, flavorless.
As Delaware and Sturgis sort their way through bereaved parents, estranged spouses, drug dealers and underground filmmakers, our view of these minor characters constantly shifts. Peake’s victims, the Ardullos, for instance, at first seem to have been killed at random. But back issues of the Treadway newspaper (which Kellerman quotes in a dead-on satire of small-town journalism) show that they were embroiled in a dispute with the town’s other wealthy family, the Crimminses. The Ardullos wanted to keep their land in agriculture; the Crimminses wanted to sell to developers.
After the murders, all the land was sold, Delaware discovers. Treadway has disappeared. In its place is a golf-condo community where the former sheriff who found the Ardullos’ bodies lives with memories violently at odds with the turf-and-tile paradise around him.
Delaware begins to wonder if Peake, the solitary, wasted lunatic in his cell, is the real monster. Maybe somebody else--not psychotic but psychopathic: somebody sane but evil, somebody who does kill for fun--fed Peake drugs and pushed him over the edge. Maybe that somebody committed the crimes himself and let Peake take the rap. Maybe, just maybe, that somebody is the same person who killed Dr. Argent and the other recent victims.
But how would Peake--with his “low-level functioning” in Starkweather and a borderline IQ to begin with--know about the murders in advance?
It’s a recurring problem with mysteries of this kind: To create a puzzle so difficult for skilled detectives like Sturgis and Delaware to solve, Kellerman has to provide a villain who is not only uncommonly evil but implausibly brilliant. We don’t quite believe in this bad guy’s cleverness, considering the mess he’s made of most of his life, though we admire the jigsaw work on the puzzle. And it’s too bad social issues such as the suburbanization of the Central Valley are reduced to individual pathology, although Kellerman’s distinction between the two kinds of pathology is valid and humane.