You'll be less than a third of the way into RAGE, Jonathan Kellerman's brilliant new novel, before you encounter a pivotal passage. Here's the setup:
Psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis are investigating the killing of a convicted murderer. The newly deceased --- Rand Duchay --- is an easily led, slow-witted soul who in the company of a child psychopath named Troy Turner murdered two-year old Kristal Malley some eight years ago. Turner never made it out of prison alive; Duchay, however, survived his stretch and, newly released to the world at age 21, had placed a call to Delaware, wanting to talk to him about Kristal's murder. Duchay and Delaware were not strangers to each other, Delaware having evaluated both Turner and Duchay on the eve of their trial. But before Delaware and Duchay are able to meet, Duchay is murdered.
An immediate suspect is Barnett Malley, Kristal's father, a man who lives in brooding isolation. When Delaware and Sturgis journey out to the trail park where Malley spends his quiet life, he refuses to talk to them, shutting his door in their faces. A few moments later, Delaware and Sturgis hear the man playing the piano, a wistful, angst-laden instrumental --- it's a song that you know, even if you think you don't --- which sets the stage for what is to come while revealing the quiet anguish of irredeemable, irreparable loss. What is brilliant about this passage is that Kellerman makes time stand still within it; one can smell the grass that surrounds Malley's home, feel the heat, hear the piano notes hanging mournfully in the air and then disappearing to make way for the next set. It is a beautifully rendered vignette in a novel full of them.
Malley is a mysterious man, full of bitterness and anger, one who certainly has motive to hunt down and destroy those who took Kristal from him forever. Delaware and Sturgis doggedly pursue evidence that takes them to surprising and unforeseen places. There are other murders in addition to Duchay's that are tied to the death of Kristal Malley, and there are other crimes --- unspeakable crimes --- that must be answered for as well.
RAGE is more than a complex, well-plotted whodunit. Kellerman slowly has been developing the person of Delaware for two decades, and continues to do so here, exploring the irony of how a man in the helping profession is, ultimately, unsuccessful in resolving his own unhappiness. Interestingly enough, though, RAGE is as much about Sturgis as it is about Delaware. Kellerman never brings us back to Sturgis's home --- most of the personal information we get about Sturgis is secondhand, through Delaware --- but much about Sturgis's inner psyche is revealed here. Sturgis constantly threatens to eclipse Delaware; he is one of those characters who does not fit comfortably into a secondary role, so that one cannot imagine an Alex Delaware novel without him. And, as always, the City of Los Angeles has a starring role. Kellerman's description of L.A. at play in its subtle, inevitable apocalypse is riveting in and of itself, a dark travelogue of a time and place simultaneously in sun and shadow.
RAGE is a brilliant, haunting work, among the best that Kellerman has ever written. When you compile your best of the year list, save a spot for this one. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011