A recurring character can be simultaneously a blessing and a curse for an author. Or an Arthur. Conan Doyle became so sick of writing about Sherlock Holmes that he sent him tumbling over a waterfall, locked in fatal embrace with Dean Moriarty, only to have to bring him back again when readers reacted with outrage at his demise. Robert Parker and Spenser, James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux...you can make your own list, I'm sure. Create a recurring character who strikes a chord with the reading public and you have taken a small first step toward success. That is the blessing part. The curse? Try to keep things fresh and new while staying true to the character. Allow the character to grow and even change, without losing the qualities that attracted your readership and which (hopefully) keep it growing.
DR. DEATH is the 14th of Jonathan Kellerman's novels featuring Dr. Alex Delaware, a psychologist with a thriving private practice, who is occasionally called in as a consultant on police matters by his friend Milo Sturgis, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. DR. DEATH is "Dr." Eldon Mate, a raggedly flamboyant proponent of assisted suicide who is found hooked up to his very own death machine --- trussed, mutilated and very, very dead. Sturgis and Delaware do not suffer from lack of suspects, but the field quickly narrows to three: Mate's own son, disowned and living on the street; family members of one of Mate's unacknowledged patients --- or, as he would refer to them, his "travelers;" and a psychopath being pursued by a relentless FBI agent with an agenda of his own.
The case creates some strains on the friendship between Delaware and Sturgis. Kellerman, rather than presenting the usual Poncho and Cisco relationship between the two professionals, throws a bit of tension into the mix. Delaware has counseled the family members of Joanne Doss, one of Mate's "travelers" --- and the trail of suspects leads right to the Doss front door. Delaware, naturally, cannot discuss what he has learned with Sturgis, and there is some question as to whether his involvement in the case is entirely proper. How --- and if --- Delaware and Sturgis can resolve these difficulties and preserve their friendship is one of the salient elements of DR. DEATH that keeps all of the recurring characters, particularly Delaware and Sturgis, fresh and contemporary.
Kellerman additionally uses the Delaware novels as a vehicle for quietly documenting the social and economic climate of Los Angeles. He continues the work commenced by Chandler and Ross McDonald in this regard, noting the deterioration of quality of life and the uneasy coexistence of conflicted lifestyles and cultures brought together here by design, there by circumstance. The common theme running between Chandler's then and Kellerman's now is real estate: its acquisition, its value, its price. The value people place on real property, what they will do to acquire it, and what price, in the figurative and monetary sense, they will pay for it provides an important though subtle understory in DR. DEATH.
Kellerman's Delaware novels continue to quietly amaze with their layers of psychological and social study that underlay suspenseful narrative and intriguing storylines, which will keep even casual mystery readers thinking and wondering about the mystery within as well as the ever-changing cultural divides of southern California. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 28, 2001