Sunday, January 29, 2012


Dr. Death by Jonathan Kellerman (2000)

When I decide to read a new series by a new author, I usually like to start with the first book. You get a feel of the primary character, especially if it’s a spy or a detective, and you get to walk alongside the writer as he or she refines the character with each new book. In the absence of a first book and in my haste to read the author, I pick up any within the series that might come my way. And so it was that I happened to read Dr. Death (2000) by Jonathan Kellerman instead of When the Bough Breaks (1985) and found myself fourteen books ahead. 

So what was American psychologist Alex Delaware like in the last fifteen years? Which were some of his most challenging and rewarding cases? Did he ever fail? How many times was he shot at? Was he married before Kellerman brought him to life? How many times has he been arrested?

Dr. Death doesn’t tell me much but I’m guessing Delaware hasn’t changed a lot in all the years that he has been assisting LAPD detective Milo Sturgis solve murder mysteries. What I can infer is that Delaware is a quiet man who likes to listen more and talk less. But then, that’s what psychologists do. I know his friend Sturgis is a gay, with a live-in partner, which has no bearing on the case. Delaware is also a kind-hearted man who refuses to compromise the interests of his patients even if they might be connected to the murder. He has a rare curiosity that enables him to dig, and dig deep. He lives with his girlfriend, Robin Castagna, a sculptor, who seldom questions him about his work. They are a happy couple, perhaps because they give each other time and space, and spend a lot of time together, eating, watching movies and making love. They have a bulldog.

This is what I have discovered so far about Delaware as he teams up with Sturgis to investigate the brutal murder of Eldon Mate, or Dr. Death, a story which Kellerman seems to have loosely fashioned on the late American pathologist and euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian who died in June 2011. He doesn’t say so anywhere.

Kevorkian, who was called Dr. Death in real life, once said, “Dying is not a crime” which Eldon Mate apparently concurs with as he helps others commit suicide in Dr. Death. Till one day, someone decides to use his own death machine against him, in a rental van and off a remote stretch of the road in the Hollywood Hills area. His gruesome and wound-infested body is discovered by a dog belonging to a young couple on their morning walk; the man more than willing to talk, the woman reticent and withdrawn. 

Thereafter, the story moves along at an even pace as Kellerman introduces one suspect after another that the detective and the psychologist can only suspect and do little about.

There’s Richard Doss, a shrewd businessman who buys rundown properties cheap, turns them around, and makes his fortunes. After years of a seemingly perfect marriage, his wife, Joanna, falls sick but the doctors are unable to diagnose the cause though you suspect its chronic depression. She eventually turns to Dr. Death who helps put her out of misery. Doss might have avenged his wife’s assisted killing.

Eric, his brilliant albeit disturbed, son has reason to murder Eldon Mate because he leaves university abruptly to care for his ailing mother.

Another prime suspect is Dr. Death’s own son, a psychological mess, whom he abandoned as a child. His wife, who brings up their son, turns up after Mate’s death to find out if there’s anything for her in his will.

Retired FBI agent Leimart Fusco is a suspect because he has been trying, for several years, to hunt down a serial killer who had killed his daughter and was responsible for numerous other murders. You can’t help wondering who he is after: the serial killer or Mate’s murderer. Might they be one and the same person?

Even Mate’s absconding lawyer Ray Haiselden is a suspect. 

Kellerman ties all these suspects into one big knot and leaves it for the reader to untie, which is easier said than done. You don’t suspect the identity of the real killer until nearly the end but, by then, the author has you in knots too. Alex Delaware looks at things, like hidden clues, for instance, with a keen academic eye which finally helps him snare his prey. Dr. Death is a good psychological thriller but it’s not racy like your regular whodunit and the pace picks up much, much later. But it’s worth reading.


  1. I don't read a lot of Kellerman but I always like him when I do.

  2. Charles, I quite liked Kellerman's style and I look forward to reading his other books.