By Jonathan Kellerman.
Ballantine, $26.95, 365pp.
By Stephen White.
Dutton, $25.95, 402pp.
Every time George W. Bush uses the word "evil," or even worse, "evildoers," you can feel the collective wince from the mainstream media and Washington elites. In today's therapeutic culture, such words are virtually archaic relics from the King James Bible. And while Freud may be discredited in many specifics, the fundamentals of Freudianism form the religion of many on the Left. If the proverb is true that the devil's best trick was convincing people that he doesn't exist, his biggest accomplice might be the American Psychiatric Association. Thankfully, American fiction has not yet succumbed to the clichés that control American political and social discourse.
Jonathan Kellerman, a clinical psychologist turned best-selling thriller writer, has turned his back on the political correctness of his former profession. While many of the standard psychological cues form clues in his mysteries, evil choices by predators - be they strong or weak, abused or dominant, rich or poor -- are the determining factors in his antagonists' actions.
Given the chattering class’s hostility to the idea of evil as an active principle in our world, it's surprising that Kellerman still gets great reviews. After all, he slaughtered two of the Left's sacred cows in each of his last two books. In Twisted, the hero uncovers a serial killer by violating his sacred American Library Association-asserted privacy rights and investigating his reading habits -- all this without a dreaded Patriot Act warrant. In Rage, Kellerman exposes the law allowing minors to obtain abortions without parental consent as the perfect method for a serial abuser to cover up his crimes.
Perhaps Kellerman still gets credit from leftists for his first novel, When the Bough Breaks (1985), which played off the hysteria generated by the McMartin day care case in California, in which feminist ideology, politically correct-and-motivated prosecutors, and baby boomer guilt combined into a modern Salem witch hunt. Scores of innocent lives were ruined, all with the acquiescence of the APA.
Kellerman may also get lefty points for the fact that the sidekick of psychologist Alex Delaware, the hero in his current novel, Gone, is a gay Los Angeles Police Department detective, although Milo Sturgis has a definite dark side and is hardly the wise and witty gay best friend who pops up in countless movies and sitcoms.
Around the time the McMartin case was exposed as a fraud, Kellerman began taking a far more jaded look at his profession. For the past decade, he has been on a decidedly politically incorrect course - as well as a creative roll. His work often resembles what might result if Michael Medved took a stab at The Silence of the Lambs.
Gone is Kellerman's 20th Alex Delaware mystery and is based on the intriguing premise that the desire to be an actor may have a pathological element. A defense lawyer asks Alex to examine Michaela Brand, an aspiring actress who was supposedly carjacked, kidnapped and assaulted along with a male student from her acting class. When the incident is exposed as a hoax that was either a publicity stunt or an acting exercise gone terribly wrong, Michaela claims that the whole thing is the result of emotional problems. Alex finds this to be true enough, but it's neither an excuse nor the whole story.
A quick plea bargain settles the issue -- until Michaela really is kidnapped, and her strangled corpse leads Milo Sturgis to the conclusion that there is something more here than a publicity stunt.
Alex and Milo find out Michaela is not the only student of her acting school to go missing. Their investigation leads them through a crowd of people so desperate to exist in the public's eye that they have no real lives.
Gone is a solid and intelligent whodunit but far from Kellerman's most gripping work. Still, you have to give some credit to a book that contains a line no Hollywood producer would allow in a movie: "But for the grace of a few inches," a colorful supporting character says about an injury, "I'd have ended up childless, singing soprano, and voting Democrat."
Despite having a solid career as a mystery writer, Stephen White -- another former clinical psychologist -- has been labeled a Kellerman-lite, and not without justification. His main hero is Alan Gregory, a shrink/sleuth who gets involved with crime-solving along with his best friend, a Boulder, Colorado, police detective.
White's track record is spottier than Kellerman's, but he has built a solid career of suspense novels that are mostly smart and entertaining. He tackles a larger issue than Kellerman in his latest, Kill Me, a masterpiece of suspense with plot twists that induce the kind of mental whiplash that have made Harlan Coben a staple of the bestseller list.
Protagonist Gregory takes a back seat in this tale, making only brief appearances as the anonymous narrator shows up to tell him his story and to seek guidance on some tough issues. The narrator is a rich, successful businessman, the kind of guy who thinks he is living life to the fullest because he is a reckless risk-taker. He has a wife, a child, and a reasonably happy family life, although he's mostly living for himself. When news comes that a friend has become severely disabled, he expresses the usual cheap sentiment, "I'd rather be dead."
One of his fellow adventurers takes him seriously and introduces him to people who secretly honor that wish -- by force. The catch to the million-dollar service is that the contract is irrevocable. He signs up for the "service," and with brainless bravado selects a level in which a fairly small permanent impairment in health will trigger his death.
Then the narrator finds out two things: He has a son he never knew about, which makes him re-evaluate his priorities and the way he has taken family relationships for granted, and he develops a life-threatening condition.
Suddenly faced with death, he realizes he has far more to life than being able to snowboard off the mountains. He tries to strike back against his implacable death insurance company, whose agents he calls the Death Angels.
White’s novel reminds us that we live in an age where an offhand comment to a relative when discussing someone on life support -- such as, "Don't let me hang on like that" -- can be held up in court as a binding end-of-life testament, and the decision may be irreversible. The thriller genre provides a lot more fun than the legal wrangling over what to do with someone in coma would, but White's point -- that the healthy hold life far more cheaply than those who are about to lose it -- is well taken and applies more widely, as well.
Kill Me is one of the most entertaining and provocative thrillers of the year. That it lifts the tent on a contentious social issue makes it even more fun.
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