The Barnes & Noble Review
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.
. . . this ambitious new novel by an old pro lacks the gritty feel of Hollywood sleaze that writers like Elmore Leonard live and breathe. . .In the end, the busy but thin plot can't shake the underlying saccharine tone. Billy's surname says it all.
-- Entertainment Weekly
Often mystery writers can either plot like devils or create believable characters. Kellerman stands out because he can do both. . . masterfully.
Detroit Free Press
Jonathan Kellerman doesn't just write psychological thrillers; he owns the genre.
...[T]he reason you're turning the pages so fast...[is] the winsome title character and frequent narrator....The kid is irresistible.
The New York Times Book Review
...Kellerman...has justly earned his reputation as a master of the psychological thriller....the writing is vivid, the suspense sustained...
For 12-year-old Billy, dubbed "Straight" because of his strong sense of moral duty, life on the run in L.A. is preferable to living with his addicted mother and her sadistic boyfriend. But after witnessing the stabbing murder of a celebrity's ex-wife, things get tougher for Billy; he saw the killer's license plate and knows he should tell, but he's terrified of both the killer and the police, so he runs for his life. LAPD Detective Petra Connor investigates the murder and begins to search for Billy--as do the media, bounty hunters, and the killer. Kellerman (Survival of the Fittest, LJ 8/97) has given Detective Alex Delaware only a cameo role here, but Billy and Petra are poignant, likable characters in a fast-paced, riveting tale that will keep readers hanging until the very last page. Another winner from the master of the psychological thriller; highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/98.]--Rebecca House Stankowski, Purdue Univ. Calumet Lib., Hammond, IN
A master of the psychological thriller
New York Times Book Review
Kellerman really knows how to keep those pages turning.
While Alex Delaware, his psychologist-sleuth (The Clinic, 1997, etc.), is out on a one-book hiatus, Kellerman produces his best work yet. Young Billy Straight, fleeing domestic non-tranquility-his mom's a drunk, her boyfriend's a sadist-happens on a woman being stabbed to death. It traumatizes him, of course-not only the brutality of it, but its way of placing on his thin shoulders one more impossible burden. What should he do? Should he tell the police he's seen a license plate number? He's only 12, but Bill is named "Straight" for a reason: he's a boy who takes moral dilemmas seriously. But this time, nevertheless, he runs. Facing the police, risking a return to the misery of his home as well as possible exposure to a killer, is more good behavior than he can force on himself. The murder victim turns out to be the divorced wife of a well-known television star-and a case for the LAPD's Detective Petra Connor, who is less than overjoyed at it, knowing it will be high profile and a media magnet. Launching the kind of professional investigation she prides herself on is tricky business in a fish bowl. Brass will get nervous. In addition, her usually rock-solid partner is already distracted in a way that mystifies her, and he won't explain himself, making Petra feel put upon and deserted. But there's plenty of bulldog in this pretty Detective, belying her laid-back and understated look. Relentlessly, she tracks down the leads that at first point unerringly to the disgruntled and jealous former husband. Soon, however, other possibilities occur, until at last Petra connects with Billy during a climactic, blood-drenched shoot-out that resolves all. An engrossing tale in lean,straightforward prose. Readers leery of Kellerman's style will be hard put to find the purple patches usually associated with it. .
From the Publisher
“Jonathan Kellerman has justly earned his reputation as a master of the psychological thriller. . . . The writing is vivid, the suspense sustained, and [he] has arranged one final, exquisitely surprising plot twist to confound the complacent reader.”—People (Book of the Week)
“Riveting . . . nobody evokes Los Angeles better than Jonathan Kellerman.”—Los Angeles Times
Read an Excerpt
In the park you see things.
But not what I saw tonight.
God, God . . .
I wanted to be dreaming but I was awake, smelling chili meat and onions and the pine trees.
First, the car drove up to the edge of the parking lot. They got out and talked and he grabbed her, like in a hug. I thought maybe they were going to kiss and I'd watch that.
Then all of a sudden, she made a weird sound-surprised, squeaky, like a cat or dog that gets stepped on.
He let go of her and she fell. Then he bent down next to her and his arm started moving up and down really fast. I thought he was punching her, and that was bad enough, and I kept thinking should I do something. But then I heard another sound, fast, wet, like the butcher at Stater Brothers back in Watson chopping meat-chuck chuck chuck.
He kept doing it, moving his arm up and down.
I wasn't breathing. My heart was on fire. My legs were cold. Then they turned hot-wet.
Pissing my pants like a stupid baby!
The chuck chuck stopped. He stood up, big and wide, wiped his hands on his pants. Something was in his hand and he held it far from his body.
He looked all around. Then in my direction.
Could he see me, hear me-smell me?
He kept looking. I wanted to run but knew he'd hear me. But staying here could trap me-how could he see anything behind the rocks? They're like a cave with no roof, just cracks you can look through, which is the reason I picked them as one of my places.
My stomach started to churn around, and I wanted to run so badly my leg muscles were jumping under my skin.
A breeze came through the trees, blowing up pine smell and piss stink.
Would it blow against the chili-burger's wrapping paper and make noise? Would he smell me?
He looked around some more. My stomach hurt so bad.
All of a sudden he jumped ran back to the car, got in, drove away.
I didn't want to see when he passed under the lamp at the corner of the parking lot, didn't want to read the license plate.
The letters burned into my mind.
Why did I look?
I'm still sitting here. My Casio says 1:12 a.m.
I need to get out of here, but what if he's just driving around and comes back-no, that would be stupid, why would he do that?
I can't stand it. She's down there, and I smell like piss and meat and onions and chili. Real dinner from the Oki-Rama on the Boulevard, that Chinese guy who never smiles or looks at your face. I paid $2.38 and now I want to throw it up.
My jeans are starting to get sticky and itchy. Going over to the public bathroom at the other end of the lot is too dangerous . . . that arm going up and down. Like he was just doing a job. He wasn't as big as Moron, but he was big enough. She trusted him, let him hug her . . . what did she do to make him so mad . . . could she still be alive?
No way. Impossible.
I listen carefully to see if she's making any sounds. Nothing but the freeway noise from across the east side of the park and traffic from the Boulevard. Not much traffic tonight. Sometimes, when the wind blows north, you hear ambulance sirens, motorcycles, car honks. The city's all around. The park looks like the country, but I know the difference.
Who is she?-forget that, I don't want to know.
What I want is to put tonight on rewind.
That squeaky sound-like he took the air right out of her. For sure she's . . . gone. But what if she isn't?
Even if she isn't, she will be soon, all that chucking. And what could I do for her, anyway? Breathe into her mouth, put my face in her blood?
What if he comes back while I'm doing it?
Would he come back? That would be stupid, but there are always surprises. She sure found that out.
I can't help her. I have to put this all out of my mind.
I'll sit here for ten more minutes-no, fifteen. Twenty. Then I'll get my Place Two stuff together and move.
Where to? Place One, up near the observatory, is too far, and so are Three and Four, even though Three would be good 'cause it has a stream for washing. That leaves Five, in the fern tangle behind the zoo, all those trees. A little closer, but still a long walk in the dark.
But it's also the hardest one to find.
Okay, I'll go to Five. Me and the animals. The way they cry and roar and smash against their cages makes it hard to sleep, but tonight I probably won't sleep anyway.
Meantime, I sit here and wait.
Our Father in heaven, how about no more surprises?
Not that praying ever got me anything, and sometimes I wonder if there's anyone up there to pray to or just stars-humongous balls of gas in an empty black universe.
Then I get worried that I'm blaspheming.
Maybe some kind of God is up there; maybe He's saved me lots of times and I'm just too dumb to know it. Or not a good enough person to appreciate Him.
Maybe God saved me tonight, putting me behind the rocks, instead of out in the open.
But if he had seen me when he drove up, he probably would've changed his mind and not done anything to her.
So did God want her to . . .
No, he just would've gone somewhere else to do it . . . whatever.
In case You saved me, thank You, God.
In case You're up there, do You have a plan for me?
What People are saying about this
From a barnesandnoble.com e-nnouncement
America's foremost author of psychological suspense takes
a rare departure from his bestselling Alex Delaware series
with the recently released BILLY STRAIGHT -- a riveting
thriller that weaves together the lives of a 12-year-old
runaway, a psychotic killer, and a dedicated detective
from the LAPD. Here is what Jonathan Kellerman had to
say when barnesandnoble.com asked about the inspiration
behind his new book BILLY STRAIGHT.
Where Ideas Originate
by Jonathan Kellerman
One of the questions I'm asked most frequently is "Where
do you get your ideas?" So often am I faced with this that
the urge to answer flippantly -- "From my warped mind."
"At Sears." "At the blackjack table in Vegas." -- can be
The truth is that there's no pat answer. My ideas -- my
novels themselves -- spring from a variety of sources.
Sometimes a character appears to me and his/her persona
drives the book. Other inspirations include chance meetings,
overhearing a particularly delicious snippet of dialogue,
my concern about social issues, and news items. (Not the
headline-grabbing stuff. What turns me on is the obscure
little piece buried in the back pages of some arcane
journal.) Most often, a combination of factors is at play.
Occasionally, events from my own life guide my pen. For
example, when I retired from the practice of psychology
over a decade ago, I realized that my patients would
remain in my life for as long as they needed my counsel.
Hence, the first line of the book-in-progress, PRIVATE
EYES: "A therapist's work is never over."
I've been quoted often regarding my affection for the
two jobs with which I've been blessed: clinical
psychology and writing fiction. What unites the two, I
believe, is a deep curiosity, and hopefully, a compassion,
about people. What differentiates them, is that psychology
strives to develop rules about human behavior while
fiction explores the exceptions to the rules.
Twelve-year-old Billy Straight, whom I believe to be
among the most fascinating and endearing characters
gracious enough to visit my head, presented himself in
astonishing detail, virtually commanding me to write
Billy is a grand exception, cast by Fate, Province,
accident of birth -- whatever you choose to call it --
in the role of congenital victim. He enters this world
in turmoil, encounters obstacles at every turn, and
suffers the kind of terror and degradation that most
children are fortunate never to encounter.
Yet, Billy never abandons his essential goodness, never
takes leave of a strong moral stance. Billy survives. He
thrives. I think of him as a hero for our time.
The same can be said for Petra Connor, the brilliant but
troubled homicide cop who finds herself searching for Billy.
Introduced in SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, Petra kept returning
to my office, urging, "C'mon, Kellerman, there's more to me
than that little cameo."
The streets of Hollywood played a role, too.
For many years, I worked in an inner-city hospital on
the tough east end of Hollywood, came into contact with
street kids, learned about the horrors of abuse and
abandonment. I wanted to write about street life, but not
in the usual way -- merely reciting a litany of horrors --
because that had been done before. And because I don't
traffic in despair.
I wanted to write about the exceptions.
Every page of this book was a joy to construct. Writing
BILLY STRAIGHT permitted me to explore the resilience of
the human spirit within the framework of what I hope is
an entertaining and gripping thriller. For, despite the
sometimes dismal state of the world, I remain a stubborn
I know life can't be tied up neatly. I always strive to
avoid pat endings to my novels.
But there are heroes out there. And I'm one of the lucky
guys who gets to tell some of their stories.
I hope you enjoy reading BILLY STRAIGHT as much as I
enjoyed writing it.
From the Publisher
“Taut, compelling . . . Everything a thriller ought to be. The writing is excellent. The plotting is superior. The characters ring true.”
“JONATHAN KELLERMAN HAS JUSTLY EARNED HIS REPUTATION AS A MASTER OF THE PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER. . . . The writing is vivid, the suspense sustained, and [he] has arranged one final, exquisitely surprising plot twist to confound the complacent reader.”
—People (Book of the Week)
“[A] TENSION-FILLED THRILLER . . . A COMPELLING READ . . . KELLERMAN MAKES YOU CARE DEEPLY FOR THIS CHILD.”
—San Francisco Examiner
“RIVETING . . . NOBODY EVOKES LOS ANGELES BETTER THAN JONATHAN KELLERMAN.”
—Los Angeles Times