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December 14, 2022

The Review That Counted

Jonathan Kellerman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than 40 crime novels, including the Alex Delaware series --- the latest installment of which, UNNATURAL HISTORY, releases on February 7th. Back in 1992, shortly before the holiday season, the sixth entry in the series, PRIVATE EYES, was published. The book was panned twice by the same Chicago newspaper, but an encounter with a legendary author and their subsequent correspondence made Jonathan forget all about those negative reviews --- because her review was the one that counted.


In the winter of 1992, shortly before the holiday season, my seventh novel, PRIVATE EYES, was published. Back then I was still doing national book tours, often encountering challenging weather but ready to do my best for God, country and my publisher.

One frigid morning found me in wind-whipped Chicago, slated for a slew of interviews.  Before I set out, I received a call from my publicist advising me not to read the morning edition of a self-styled newspaper of record.

“Sounds ominous,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.”

Apparently that august journalistic organ had panned PRIVATE EYES twice --- in a daily review, as well as in an upcoming Sunday edition. Obviously I wasn’t thrilled, but I put the news aside and went about my tour.

A while later, back home in L.A., I was asked to participate in a symposium on writing crime fiction at the American Booksellers Association national convention in nearby Anaheim. My co-participants were my friend, Sue Grafton, and someone I greatly admired but whom I’d never met: the brilliant English novelist Ruth Rendell, truly a writer’s writer.

Sue and I arrived first and exchanged pleasantries. Then Ruth showed up, slim, straight-backed, aristocratically pretty and elegant, with a markedly serious mien. Her black hair was immaculately coiffed and contrasted dramatically with a bright red blazer with black velvet lapels over black slacks. The outfit conjured up images of fox hunts.

As she settled next to me, she looked none too pleased to be there.

I introduced myself and told her what a fan I was of her books. She smiled faintly and said, “And I of yours.”

I figured she was just being nice, but it broke the ice and we began to chat. I knew we’d achieved some sort of rapport when midway through the audience questions, Ruth leaned in and whispered, “This is such rubbish.”

Then the panel was over, and we parted ways.

A week later, I received a letter in the mail (remember those days?) sent in an envelope engraved with the name of a luxury hotel in Seattle.

Inside was a “Dear Jonathan” letter from Ruth Rendell, written in a lovely, graceful hand on hotel stationery, thanking me for helping her maintain sanity during her own book tour by producing PRIVATE EYES.

It was a brilliant book, she added, rich with psychological insight, and I’d clearly written it word by word with exquisite care.

This was one of the most gracious fan letters I’ve ever received, but more importantly, it had come from of the greatest writers of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Ruth Rendell liked my book. So to heck with the alleged paper of record (my actual language was a lot earthier).

Ruth and I subsequently corresponded a few times over the following years. In one letter, she called my attention to the letterhead on her new stationery: The Baroness Rendell; she was now a member of the House of Lords. (Writers in the UK attain a level of appreciation that we Yanks can’t hope to achieve.)

I initiated one exchange of letters with an apology to Ruth for a rather crass attempt by my British publisher at the time to compare her psychological insights invidiously to mine as a publicity device. I was appalled and told her so.

She wrote back and assured me not to worry. “The press here is always trying to come between P.D. James and myself. What rubbish.”

Ruth passed away in 2015. I’m sure she had no idea how much her support during a crucial time meant to me. I miss her and her books, and I find her novels among the few that merit re-reading.

P.S. PRIVATE EYES garnered overall great reviews and made a huge jump in sales.