Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review - Compulsion

Clinical psychologist Jonathan Kellerman has become famous (and, presumably, wealthy) from his series of crime novels, most featuring (as the flyleaf says) "the modern Sherlock Holmes of the psyche," psychologist Alex Delaware. I have read this series (now up to 22 books) ever since the first, When the Bough Breaks (1985), so I have followed the exploits of Dr. Delaware even before these books became guaranteed Number 1 best sellers.

And that's why I have found recent entries in the series, including the most recent, Compulsion (2008), so disappointing. The original books crackled with excitement as we saw Alex, whose independent wealth gives him the time to go traipsing around crime scenes, wrestle with psychologically complex killers as he worked out his own life. We never delved into the doctor's mind the way that James Lee Burke has done with his Dave Robicheaux character, but there was some sense of progress and, in a series, the main character's development is a critical part of why we keep coming back.

Obviously, that can be overdone. As I talked about in my review of the last Kay Scarpetta novel by Patricia Cornwell, a writer can get so carried away with the development of the main character that it can swamp the actual book, leading to preposterousness or, worse yet, boredom. And Kellerman has avoided that trap in Compulsion by failing to show us any of the internal workings of Delaware, even though the story is told in first person.

What used to be a nice juxtaposition of the mental insights of the doctor with the straight-ahead police work of his longtime foil, Milo Sturgis, has been reduced to a few admiring comments from Sturgis on Alex's incisive questions in an interview. There is virtually no reason for this police procedural even to include a psychologist, as his talents are not needed (most of Alex's effort involves the kind of legwork that any young cop could do).

So we're left with a few interesting character sketches (Kellerman has always had a talent for including a few witnesses/suspects who are drawn in brief but fascinating ways) and a plot, well, two and a half plots (the half is a minute subplot concerning Delaware's long-time love, the beautiful luthier Robin). The main plot concerns a series of killings that initially seem to be unrelated, but we never doubt will be, and this is a by-the-numbers, Law & Order: Criminal Intent-style story with very little engagement and even less menace. None of it really comes together, the surprise twist is ho-hum, and the resolution unexciting.

Far more affecting are the other two plots, which do carry some real emotional kick, but are quite brief. That the resolution of a 16-year-old case carries more weight than the main plotline is a serious problem for this book; that the virtual throwaway of the half-plot concerning the construction of a mandolin does too is even more of a fatal flaw.

After writing three Alex Delaware novels, Kellerman wrote a crime thriller set in Israel called The Butcher's Theater; that was surprisingly good even without the crutch of the hero we had come to know. Maybe it's time for him to put Delaware on the shelf for a year or two, do something else, and come back to the tried and true with fresh eyes.

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