Jonathan Kellerman's Gone

Jonathan’s Kellerman’s 26 Alex Delaware books can be read as police procedurals, amateur detective novels, or psychological thrillers. This unique series of books began in 1985 with When the Bough Breaks, a novel that won both the Edgar Allen Poe and Anthony Boucher awards for best first mystery. Having worked his way through UCLA as an editorial cartoonist, columnist, and editor, Kellerman won the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award for fiction while still a university student. Married to mystery writer Faye Kellerman, he has collaborated with her on two bestsellers, Double Homicide and Capital Crimes. Kellerman has also written essays, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction.

Like his protagonist Alex Delaware, Kellerman is a clinical psychologist who brings his expertise in child psychology to crime investigations. He is not the only psychiatrist or psychologist to write a mystery story; see for example, the novels of Laura Munder, Leonard Simon, Samuel Shem, Benjamin Schutz, James Howard, and Bruce Forester (Krasner 1991).

The psychological expert is a familiar role in crime fiction. Margaret Truman, P.D. James, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Thomas Harris, and Robert Parker have all created memorable psychiatrists/psychologists in their novels (Krasner 1991).

Gone – Kellerman’s 20th Alex Delaware novel – captures our interest on the first page. The novel opens with a local rancher driving down a canyon, through “mile after mile of neck-wrenching hairpin twists” when suddenly a naked, terrified girl jumps out in front of his truck. He is perilously close to falling into “a thousand foot of nothing” (3, 4). The story the girl tells of abduction, assault, and starvation turns out to be hoax. Yet shortly after this incident, she is found dead. Other bodies are discovered and the mystery deepens. The end of the novel is as unexpected as the beginning.

Kellerman has created a dynamic pair of detectives in psychologist Alex Delaware and homicide detective Milo Sturgis. Their snappy tough-guy dialogue will remind you of the witty repartee found in a Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald novel. (See my posts on The Long Goodbye, The Big Sleep, and The Goodbye Look). Milo brings the vast resources of the police force to the case while Alex provides insight into the inner workings of the criminal mind. By creating this amateur detective/homicide policeman duo, Kellerman adds both realism and psychological suspense to these mysteries.

Alex is interested in the psyche of the murderers, tracing the roots of their psychopathic behaviour to earlier childhood experiences. As a psychological mystery, Gone is intense and captivating. Kellerman manages to successfully combine the fast-paced action of the “whodunit” with the slower-paced psychological exploration of the “why-done-it.”

Janet Maslin points out that Kellerman “can always be counted on to lead the reader on an intriguing runaround.” Gone, like the other novels in the series, is a true page turner. Kellerman acknowledges that he is far more interested in extraordinary and extreme events than in ordinary and commonplace ones:
All good fiction involves an element of mystery – ideally, the reader should be compelled to turn the page in order to find out what happens next. Crime novels use extreme events – matters of life and death – to catalyze the story. That kind of intensity appeals to me. Trying to squeeze profundity out of banal events doesn’t.
The central motif and subtext of Gone is acting. Los Angles is depicted as a Mecca and a mirage for would-be actors and actresses. The perpetrator of the crimes grew up in a household where “performance was all” (361). Described as “the ultimate actor,” he has a Hollywood mindset that fosters social disintegration (362). Elsie tells Alex that in L. A. “showbiz trumps everything. You ask people in this city if they’d give up a vital organ for a walk-on in a movie, I guarantee you most would ask where’s the scalpel” (355).

Los Angeles is a dominating presence and controlling force in the novel. “Back when I treated children,” says Alex, “I routinely took histories from parents and learned what family life could be like in L.A. People packing up and moving every year or two, the surrender to impulse, the death of domestic ritual” (6). In a company town whose product is “fantasy” and whose motto could be “no forwarding address,” it is not surprising that glamour is only surface deep (7).

Zvirin describes Gone as a “fast, clever thriller [that] proves again why Kellerman’s books reside on best-seller lists” (2006, 44). If you like mysteries with a psychological focus, you will certainly enjoy Gone.

Kellerman, Jonathan. Gone. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006.

Krasner, Leonard. “Shrinks and Murder: The Psychologist/Psychiatrist in the Mystery Novel.” Clues 12, no. 2 (1991): 51-65.

Zvirin, Stephanie. “Gone.” Booklist 102, no. 13 (March 1, 2006): 44.