Death Is at Hand
In the 15 years that have passed since When the Bough Breaks was published, Jonathan Kellerman has produced a substantial body of fiction that combines viscerally exciting melodrama with subtlety and psychological complexity. These characteristic virtues are on full display in Dr. Death, Kellerman's 16th novel, and the 14th entry in the bestselling series featuring child psychologist -- and amateur detective -- Alex Delaware.
As the novel opens, Alex has signed on, once again, as an independent consultant to the Los Angeles Police Department. Partnered, as usual, with gay homicide detective Milo Sturgis, Alex finds himself investigating the death of a notorious, Kevorkian-like figure named Eldon Mate, popularly known as "Dr. Death." A controversial advocate of the "right to die," and a direct participant in at least 50 assisted suicides, Mate enters the headlines one last time when his grotesquely mutilated body is found strapped to the "humanitron," a machine designed to facilitate the suicides of terminally ill clients.
Alex's involvement nearly results in an unintended conflict of interest. Some months earlier, Alex had treated a teenaged girl named Stacy Doss, whose mother, Joanne, ended a protracted illness by taking her own life, presumably with Mate's assistance. Richard Doss, Stacey's father and Joanne's husband, bitterly resented the role Mate played in his wife's suicide. A wealthy, powerful man with a hair-trigger temper, Richard is one of a number of people with a viable motive for murder.
As the investigation proceeds, Alex and Milo steadily unearth a string of prospective culprits. Included among them are Mate's lawyer, who disappeared immediately after his client's death; Mate's son, a homeless, possibly psychotic artist whose father abandoned him many years before; and various members of the wealthy, terminally dysfunctional Doss family. Complicating all this is the possible involvement of an unrelated suspect: a traveling serial killer who goes by many names and whose modus operandi eerily mirrors the methods employed by Eldon Mate's killer.
Kellerman assembles his complex, multilayered plot with typical ingenuity, leading Alex through a lethal labyrinth of possibilities toward a violent, ironic conclusion. But Dr. Death is more than just a compelling novel of suspense. Like so much of Kellerman's work, it is also an acute, painfully precise portrait of a family torn apart by internal pressures and by the combined effects of guilt, grief, rage, hatred, and twisted, misplaced love. Dr. Death offers intelligent, compassionate, high-adrenaline entertainment and reaffirms Kellerman's position as one the leading modern practitioners of psychological suspense.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).