In a rare departure from his bestselling Alex Delaware series, Jonathan Kellerman now gives us his finest novel in several years: Billy Straight, an absorbing, multilayered suspense story built around the conjunction of a runaway child, a psychopathic killer, and a dedicated Los Angeles detective.
The runaway child is Billy Straight, an undersize 12-year-old who leaves his home in Watson, California, when life with his mother's new boyfriend, a 300-pound biker named Motor (a.k.a. Moron) Moran, becomes more than he can endure. Billy, who is both bright and resourceful, tries to make a life for himself in Los Angeles's Griffith Park. He establishes a rotating series of open-air nests, lives on garbage and the leavings of others, "borrows" books from a local branch of the L.A. Public Library, and learns to survive amid the constant predatory presence of junkies, dealers, prostitutes, and perverts. Then one day he witnesses the brutal murder of a beautiful young woman, an act that reinforces his belief in the essentially savage nature of the world around him.
The murder victim is Lisa Ramsey, former wife of television star Hart Ramsey, whose well-publicized history of domestic violence makes him an obvious perhaps too obvious suspect. The bulk of the subsequent narrative is told from the alternating perspectives of Billy Straight and a homicide detective named Petra Connor, who is handed the thankless task of spearheading an investigation that shows every sign of becoming a media circus in the manner of the O. J. Simpson case. Petra's investigationquicklyunearths the possibility that a witness was present at the murder scene; and Billy's picture, accompanied by a $25,000 bounty put up by the victim's parents, soon appears on the front page of all major Los Angeles newspapers.
From this point forward, Billy finds himself in constant jeopardy, pursued by Lisa Ramsey's killer and by a number of L.A. lowlifes interested only in the money. Eventually Billy's path intersects with those of both Petra and the murderer, and the novel ends with a moment of climactic violence. Before then, however, a number of other lives have been lost, or irrevocably altered, by the combined forces of stupidity, selfishness, and greed.
Kellerman's great strength, in addition to his knack for constructing complex, compulsively readable narratives, is his ability to understand and articulate the psychological state of a 12-year-old boy whom the world has swept aside. The majority of the characters in this book are viewed and judged by their capacity to confirm or contradict Billy's view of the universe as a hostile, loveless place. In the end, despite the fact that so many people want either to use him or do him harm, Billy encounters through characters like Petra Connor and a good-hearted Holocaust survivor named Sam Ganzer enough kindness and concern to justify the tentative, uncertain belief that he just might find a place of safety somewhere in the world.
For fans of the Alex Delaware series, there are two points worth noting. First, Delaware himself makes a brief appearance in the novel, helping Billy come to terms with the traumas of his recent life. Second, in a letter attached to the advance reader's edition, Kellerman notes that a new Delaware novel is in the final stages of completion, so that series will, apparently, continue. Still, Billy Straight represents a useful departure from the main line of Kellerman's career, allowing him to approach his characteristic concerns from an effective and affecting new perspective. If you're a Delaware fan, Billy Straight is essential reading. If you're not yet familiar with Kellerman's work, then his latest book, with its representative combination of suspense, compassion, and psychological acuity, is an ideal place to begin.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub.