Criminally Good Writing

Tuesday 6th January: I’m not a big reader of crime fiction but, every so often, I dip into it. Although I’ve tried a few authors, I only regularly read two – Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Kellerman.
A few days ago, I found myself wondering why crime fiction is so popular. Personally, I find it easier to read than my regular SF or Fantasy, which is why I sometimes turn to it. Conversely, the ones I find myself reading can also be a lot more far-fetched than some of the wildest SF – there don’t appear to be many Kellerman novels that concern just one murder and, at the end, the murders, perpetrators and supporting cast all have so many links to each other that you almost need a scorecard to keep up.
However, I had a theory about the popularity that I was surprised to find was confirmed by a story on Kellerman’s website, where he tells how, when he found out that one fan, a regular at signings, was a veteran LAPD homicide detective. Kellerman asked the detective why, when he dealt with murder every day, he chose to unwind with novels dealing with murder. The detective told him that the police catch the bad guys 60 – 70% of the time, but Kellerman got them 100% of the time.
The fact is that, despite living in a society in which crime seems an everyday occurrence (and that might be doubly true for Kellerman’s fellow Americans), we get a kick out of crime novels because the “perps” are always caught.
I’ve been concentrating on Kellerman, rather than Cornwell, because the last three books that I finished (and the one I’m currently reading) are his. Self-Defense (1995), The Web (1996) and The Clinic (1997) are the 9th, 10th and 11th books in his series featuring psychologist Alex Delaware. Although he specialises in child psychology, Delaware often finds himself helping his friend LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis in murder investigations. Appearing in most of the books I have read, Delaware’s girlfriend, Robin – a luthier, is the only other regular member of the supporting cast. Which, as far as I can remember (it’s been a while since I read book eight), made for some very similar books in the past. Sturgis gets assigned to a murder, asks Delaware to help and between them they solve the case. In amongst all this you get glimpses into Delaware’s life (the books are written first person, from his point of view) as he drives around interviewing relatives and friends of the victim(s) and, usually at some point, the suspects and eating out at various LA restaurants and deli’s and discussing theories with Sturgis, the only openly gay LAPD detective, and Robin. Occasionally, the crimes impact on his private life, as in the last book, Bad Love, when his house was burnt down. You don’t have to read these books in order, but they do follow Delaware through his life so the background follows on from book to book.
However, two of these three messed with the format just a little, which made them a bit more refreshing. Self-Defense sees Delaware treating a rare private patient, a juror from a serial-killer in which the accused was sentenced to death. After the trial she starts having dreams about her childhood which appear to show her estranged father and some other men carrying off a woman’s body. Referred to Delaware by Sturgis (on whom she developed a crush during the trial) she tweaks his curiosity and he embarks on his own investigations into whether the dream is a repressed memory of an actual murder.
At times, towards the end, The Web feels more like a gothic horror novel than a modern day crime thriller. Taking a working vacation on a remote Pacific island, Delaware and Robin get caught up in a web of lies and deceit around the scientist that has employed them, the island’s naval base and big business. There have been two murders on the island, but they are peripheral to the main story and Delaware barely gets involved in the one that occurs while he is there. In the end, with a tropical storm battering the island, Delaware and Robin must brave huge venomous insects to solve clues left for them by the scientist in order to reveal the secret and discover the real reason he asked them to come to the island.
The Clinic sees Delaware once again helping Sturgis. This time a prominent female professor has been stabbed to death within yards of her house. A recent book on female empowerment, together with her work on a university committee and a possible abortion clinic has left her with many possible enemies, but which one committed the crime?
These books aren’t action novels – there may be a bit of a chase/shoot-out/set-up at the end of each but, for the most part, they are deeply rooted in the psychological aspects of the investigations. Much of each book is taken up with various conversations and Kellerman having a psychology background himself means that, instead of being dry and tedious, they are often fascinating. As already mentioned, there is a bit of a formulaic feel to the books and the small supporting cast can be a bit restrictive at times. However, Kellerman writes about Los Angeles, whether real or imagined, with great descriptive aplomb. At times you can almost taste the sandwiches that Delaware prepares for Sturgis as they discuss the latest case, or the lunch he has bought at the nice little deli he drives past between interviews. LA is a sprawling city, with its own personality, which means that Kellerman has plenty of scope for locations to describe (although occasional trips elsewhere are welcome).
Despite being written in the mid 90’s, sometimes these books appeared a bit dated. There is very little use of cellphones and a comment recently that LAPD were still a little scared by computers, while internet usage still seems restricted to terminals in universities and libraries, rather than at home.
The Delaware novels probably aren’t the best crime fiction out there but they are an enjoyable, relatively easy read (despite some of the depravity and callousness portrayed in them). It’s going to take me some time to catch up to the latest releases, though.
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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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