Welcome yet again to the ambiguous streets of L.A., home of the soft-boiled, New Age detective novel. Any pistol-packing brute can solve crimes, but only Dr. Alex Delaware, forensic psychologist and caring human being of Jonathan Kellerman’s seventh successful mystery, can actually claim to cure them. Delaware specializes in uncovering the hidden psychic wounds of perpetrator and victim alike, making proper diagnoses, and clearing the way to enhanced self-esteem all around.
Okay, so maybe that’s a bit catty. But what’s a critic to do about a crime novel in which terms like ”agoraphobic,” ”hypermature,” ”transference,” and ”counter-transference” appear on every page or so? A novel in which a kidnapping suspect confides to the inquisitive Dr. Delaware that his son’s death ”was a terrible time for me….For a while it seemed as if nothing would ever have reinforcement value again”?
To be fair, a certain amount of this psychobabble is required since Dr. Leo Gabney, the suspect in Private Eyes, is an arrogant behavioral psychologist who charges his clients upward of $500 an hour to be purged of their neuroses. Actually crisp, often witty dialogue is one of Kellerman’s main strengths as a novelist, along with disarming touches of self-mockery all too rare in the hyper-serious world of crime and detection. ”You know, this is really great, you dropping in like this,” says another character who mistakes Delaware for an ordinary shamus. ”It’s why I love waking up in L.A. You can never tell when some SoCal archetype will come knocking.”
Unfortunately, as they say in Dr. Delaware’s line of work, an explanation ain’t necessarily a cure. Just because Kellerman — a former child psychologist — recognizes clichés doesn’t always prevent him from falling into them. Except for the Doc’s extensive professional vocabulary and the fact that his physically formidable sidekick, maverick LAPD detective Milo Sturgis, happens to be gay, just about everything else about Private Eyes will strike many readers as awfully familiar.
As Delaware learns in a panicky call from a former patient, all is not well among the cloistered mansions of San Labrador. Dark secrets from the past loom. The man responsible for a horrifying and seemingly motiveless acid attack upon ex-starlet Melissa Dickinson’s mother has been paroled and returned to L.A. Then, just as childhood terrors threaten to overwhelm Melissa, her mother vanishes en route to a therapist’s office — the first time in many years the woman had dared to leave the grounds alone.
Suspects multiply rapidly as the intuitive Delaware and his roughneck companion cruise the freeways from one sociological extreme to another, encountering skid row derelicts, Malibu beach bunnies, homophobic cops, furtive bankers, slippery lawyers, and unethical shrinks.
Alas, Kellerman doesn’t merely telegraph the villain’s identity early on. Due to his penchant for overly elaborate descriptions of every character and setting, no matter how minor, he ships it to the reader Bulk Rate. Ah, but then the great mystery in Dr. Delaware’s line of work isn’t merely who but why. And that’s something you’d never guess. Altogether, an agreeable enough diversion. B