If you want to examine Exhibit “A” in support of the proposition that Jonathan Kellerman is one of the best writers laboring in the fields of genre fiction, then take a look at the first few pages of his new novel, COMPULSION.
Kellerman begins the book by introducing us to Kat, a club girl. We all know Kat. She’s the glamour shot queen who knows nothing beyond her cosmetics and wardrobe. When we meet her she is leaving a borderline seedy but trendy club, drunk, unhappy and alone. Then things go from bad to worse: she runs out of gas, she can’t get AAA to come since she forgot to renew her membership, and she’s unable to call anyone else because she didn’t charge her cell phone. Something very, very bad is going to happen to Kat. You can feel it from the opening line: “Kat loved breaking the rules.” And yes, it gets worse from there.
The sad thing is that when Kat turns up missing, it takes a while before anyone actually notices. LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis is griping to his friend and unofficial crime-solving partner, psychologist Alex Delaware, about a lack of casework when he suddenly gets a lot of it. One is a cold case involving a missing child that, well over a decade later, continues to drown the boy’s parents in an undertow of grief and heartbreak. The other is the brutal murder of an elderly retired schoolteacher, stabbed to death as she picks up the morning paper from her doorstep. Sturgis’s sole clue is provided from an eyewitness who watched the killer get into a luxury car that, it turns out, had been stolen. The only person standing to benefit from the murder is the victim’s son, a loser in every sense of the word, who, in any event, does not match the description of the culprit.
Sturgis and Delaware begin a slow but methodical search for the killer, which takes them away from modern-day Los Angeles in both distance and time to a shadowy and sordid underground subculture unknown to all but a few. When Kat’s disappearance becomes known and dovetails into Sturgis’s murder investigation, an apparently unconnected incident leads Sturgis and Delaware practically to the assailant’s door and into a cataclysmic conclusion as heartstopping as it is unforgettable.
And what about that unsolved missing child case? Delaware and Sturgis continue working on that as well, hampered by the grief and guilt of one of the few people who know what really happened. Meanwhile, Delaware has a third mystery on his hands, albeit not quite of the significance of the murder and the missing child. Robin, Delaware’s soul mate, has received a six-figure commission from a dot-com magnate to build from scratch a quartet of string instruments. Robin’s concern is that her client, whom she has never met, has designs on her. The truth, revealed at the very end of the book, is not of great magnitude yet resonates as strongly, if not more so, as any of the other climactic events that take place.
With as powerful a conclusion as you’ll read this year, COMPULSION is a master work by a writer at the very top of his game.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 28, 2010