Heartbreak Hotel: An Alex Delaware Novel
For decades, Los Angeles has provided a wide and high canvas for genre writers of all stripes to create memorable, nearly unforgettable stories. Few, however, have matched the heights reached by Jonathan Kellerman. His unlikely duo of child psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD homicide detective Milo Sturgis is an odd couple that has survived a never-aging partnership of over 30 years, their characters driving the plot but always sharing each and every ride with a compelling mystery that is never as simple or as complex as it might otherwise seem. Meanwhile, Kellerman’s writing never grows old.
At the risk of repeating myself (speaking of growing old), one can take to the bank the proposition that Kellerman’s latest book will contain some of his best writing. Such is the case with HEARTBREAK HOTEL, which is a literary and (in parts) grisly triumph from beginning to end.
One of the methods that Kellerman utilizes in keeping this series new and fresh after well over two decades of service is featuring Alex in occasionally alternating active and passive roles. In some books, Alex follows Milo’s lead, interjecting an observation or four and coming up with a conclusion that helps resolve the case. In others, he takes a more assertive role, digging up clues and conducting his own interrogations. HEARTBREAK HOTEL falls into the latter category, flipping the script a bit by bringing Milo into a case as opposed to Milo calling Alex for consultation.
"...a literary and (in parts) grisly triumph from beginning to end.... HEARTBREAK HOTEL is long on memorable scenes."
At the beginning of the book, Alex takes on what may be his most memorable patient to date in the form of Thalia Mars. As we are reminded in the early pages, Thalia is three weeks short of her 100th birthday. Alex initially demurs consulting with Thalia, but is charmed by her insistence over the phone. He is further intrigued when he meets the diminutive and still-spry lady at her residence at the Aventura, a self-styled luxury hotel that has had its ups and downs for well over a half-century. Thalia poses a number of enigmatic questions to Alex and then asks for a return session the next morning, paying him a more than generous retainer. When he arrives at the Aventura for that second meeting, Alex discovers that her death has preceded him. Worse, and improbably so, Thalia appears to be the victim of a murder.
Alex brings Milo into the investigation --- a bit of a switch in their professional relationship --- and the pair begins a dogged search for a murderer without an apparent motive. Who would kill such a charming and well-liked woman at such a late stage in her life? That is the question that dogs Alex and Milo. Thalia was quite wealthy but had no heirs. Her considerable estate was left to a number of charities, none of which seemed aware of her testamentary largesse. The two have little to work with, other than a solitary fingerprint and the history of 20th-century Los Angeles, wherein the deceased quietly played an extremely important role in one of its darker corners.
One thread leads to another, and soon they find themselves a half-step or so behind the murderer, who seems bent on eliminating many other individuals. There are, of course, no shortage of interesting characters that the investigating duo encounters along the way as they doggedly seek to speak for a victim who crossed into Alex’s world, however briefly. Surprises abound, practically up to the last page, in what becomes a master statement concerning the power and futility of greed.
HEARTBREAK HOTEL is long on memorable scenes. In one, Alex is confronted with a minor difficulty and resolves it with connective aplomb. It’s great stuff, the type of thing that each of us wishes we could do in certain situations when a minor- to mid-level authority figure is causing us difficulty. There are many more --- just about any scene with Milo fits the bill --- but you need to read the book to get them all. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Kellerman’s fine series yet, never fear. You can pick up this title without any knowledge of what has gone before and still enjoy it fully.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 16, 2017