Talk about your truth in advertising.
MYSTERY is, indeed, a new mystery by Jonathan Kellerman. It is also the latest installment in the Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis canon and, incidentally, the name of one of the book's characters, who is with us all too briefly before joining the choir invisible. This is a wonderful, intriguing and intricate story that rewards readers with dollops of entertainment and intellectual stimulation parceled out in equal measure.
Kellerman is a smart writer averse to dumbing down characterizations and plotlines. Sturgis, the LAPD homicide detective assigned to a special unit of one, and Delaware, the clinical psychologist with specialized insight into the criminal mind, make for a comfortably odd couple. Each of them is invested in the practice of engaging in a fast-paced but darkly-toned repartee during which they bounce ideas and theories off of each other.
In MYSTERY, Delaware has a very slight tie to the murder victim. He and soul mate Robin Castagna are out for an evening at the Fauborg Hotel, their favorite romantic rendezvous, when they see a beautiful woman, seemingly from another era, sitting alone at a table waiting (apparently in vain) for her date. The evening is already a melancholy one --- it's the hotel's last night of business --- and the sighting of the mysterious lady, as well as a solid, dangerous-looking bodyguard outside the establishment, are initially little more than an interesting footnote on the evening.
That changes within 48 hours when Sturgis calls Delaware to consult on a homicide victim who has been the subject of a grisly mutilation. Delaware is horrified to discover that the person in question is the same woman he and Castagna saw at the Fauborg, and the realization that she was murdered shortly thereafter brings Delaware up short. He and Castagna become emotionally invested in the case, so much so that Castagna joins him on a do-it-yourself surveillance in connection with the investigation. Sturgis is motivated by the unnecessary brutality of the crime, and in his usual fashion doggedly pursues the truth. This pursuit takes Delaware and Sturgis through the highs and lows of Los Angeles. There are plenty of both types of places to go around --- from Beverly Hills to burnt-out apartment buildings, from high-end dating services to retired madams, and all points in between.
But MYSTERY is noteworthy for its characters, and Delaware and Sturgis meet and greet all types during the course of their investigation as they follow a trail of secrets and deception to answer the question of who would want to murder the young woman who Delaware encountered for but a fleeting moment, and why. Plenty of people have any number of motives, but the answer ultimately comes from finding the right person and asking the right questions. Delaware does this, and wonderfully so, in a denouement where Kellerman quietly and quickly makes a point that we should all take with us, whether we have mysteries to solve or not.
Jonathan Kellerman is well into his third decade of writing, and while there is a comfortable familiarity with each of his books, he eschews the formalistic, by-the-numbers plotting that a lesser talent would have succumbed to by this point. MYSTERY is one of his best works to date, full of phrases you will want to take with you and memorize, a dark mystery, and an unforgettable murderer.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 4, 2011