From tinsel town to trouble
Jonathan Kellerman seems to have been around a long time. His bestselling novels featuring sleuthing psychologist Alex Delaware, and more recently his unofficial partner, veteran homicide cop Milo Sturgis, a shambling gay bear of a man who functions as Delaware’s cavalry, are dense, sinister and addictive. He is these days the godfather of LA Crime, his tight-packed, dialoguedriven stories his way, as a real-life psychologist who has seen the worst in people, of having “something to say about human misery”.
In 1985, with When the Bough Breaks, and writing somewhat from life, Kellerman imagined the possibility of crime fiction written by and about a clinical psychologist, and placed the characters that emerged fluently in the Californian tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. (Though no longer active as a psychotherapist, he is a clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.)
He says that while he admires Chandler’s .45-calibre cynicism and accurate feel for Los Angeles, it’s Macdonald’s mastery of structure and story that grabs him, something at which he excels too. As well as evoking a sense of place — that sense that geography is fate — his tales of murder and criminal pathology expose the shadowy side of glittering Los Angeles as well as any other writer. “LA isn’t a city, it’s a concept which applies anywhere in the Golden State where nice weather abounds, a chasm yawns between the haves and the have-nots, and delusional blind ambition is habitually confused with work ethic and wisdom,” he wrote in a newspaper piece in which he patrolled California’s mean streets for its hardest boiled storytellers.
His latest book, The Murderer’s Daughter (Hachette, 442pp, $29.99), is a stand-alone crime novel in which guilt and innocence are problematic, and while it’s not really a Delaware novel (though he makes a fleeting appearance), Kellerman again explores human behaviour under extreme circumstances. Grace Bladen is a brilliant psychologist, by day a nurturing person providing therapy for trauma victims she calls “the Haunted”, at night a predator addicted to abrupt sexual trysts with strangers. She calls it “surrendering to The Leap”.
Her two worlds collide when her newest patient is murdered and she is stalked by dangerous men. She becomes their next target, as her past — her abusive parents died in a terrible murder-suicide that she witnessed — is violently reawakened. But those who want her dead underestimate her capacity to wreak havoc, a product of her willpower and self-creation.
As always with Kellerman, the past has its fingers around the throat of the present, something else he shares with Macdonald, and here he runs two storylines almost simultaneously; it’s virtually a case study illustrating how a character like Grace emerged from so much violence. It’s a great read, a kind of action thriller with a terrific female character at its centre, written in the third person, unlike the ruminative, interior Delaware novels, in a style that surges you along in a rush, rather like the way Grace pushes her Aston Martin around Southern California way past the speed limit, desperate for more. Like the car, this is a novel that doesn’t like being caged.
Adrian McKinty returns with a further instalment of his wonderful Sean Duffy series, fast becoming a favourite of crime fiction aficionados worldwide. Now living in Melbourne, Northern Ireland-born McKinty writes tough and hard in balanced and weighty prose. His flair for language is matched by that seriously cool feel for characters who reject conformity.
His title Rain Dogs (Serpent’s Tail, 347pp, $29.99) comes from a song by Tom Waits, whose voice was once described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”. It’s a line that could have come from McKinty. (The novelist actually manages to include the Joycean-sounding word “lepidopterously” in his first paragraph. It means “of, or pertaining to butterflies”, and is poetically used to describe the step of the still nimble Muhammad Ali on a wonderfully imagined visit to Belfast. )
Duffy is a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant constabulary; we first met him in The Cold Cold Ground. He was newly promoted and posted to Carrickfergus CID, “that stinky Proddy hell hole” in Northern Ireland. It was 1981, the height of the Troubles, and he found himself investigating Ireland’s first serial killer. Then, in I Hear the Sirens in the Street a man’s headless, naked torso is found in a suitcase, a different kind of puzzle. In In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, Duffy was thrown out of CID and demoted from detective inspector to the rank of sergeant, having offended some high-ranking FBI agents. But in Gun Street Girl it was 1985 and he copped the murder of a wealthy couple, shot dead while watching TV, and the apparent suicide of their son, who left a note appearing to take responsibility for the deaths.
Now in Rain Dogs it’s still the apocalyptic mid-80s in Carrickfergus, 20 policemen have been killed in the line of duty, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary has the highest mortality rate in the Western world. Duffy’s still driving the Beemer and looking underneath it for mercury tilt switch bombs. Much younger Beth, the Prod from a wealthy family, has left him alone in the cold house at Coronation Street, the age difference too great. Then he finds himself embroiled in the possible suicide of journalist Lily Bigelow, who is found dead in the snowy courtyard of Carrickfergus Castle, guarded by a massive spiked cast iron portcullis.
It looks like a suicide but there are doubts. If she was murdered, was it by grappling hook, hot air balloon or hang glider? Soon Duffy is involved in something inexplicable — his second locked-room murder case. This is unusual in Ulster during the Troubles he muses, “where murder was never that baroque or complicated”. And just what does a rather ludicrous British comedian called Jimmy Savile, who was made an honorary police sergeant in the Met and who raised a king’s ransom for the Police Benevolent Fund, have to do with the Kinkaid Young Offenders’ Institution in Belfast? How does it relate to the death of the young journalist?
McKinty prefaces his wonderfully lyrical novel with a quotation from Borges: “Humiliation, unhappiness, discord are the ancient food of heroes.” And Duffy has more than his fair share as he tries to find justice for Bigelow as army helicopters sweep the rain-sodden city of Belfast with a sick, white light.
Detective Sergeant Harry Belltree is also seeking justice in Ash Island, the second instalment in Barry Maitland’s The Belltree Trilogy (Text, 300pp, $29.99), and it’s just as relentless in its pacing as his first, the acclaimed Crucifixion Creek. It’s taken me a while to catch up with Harry but once you encounter him, you struggle to keep time.
He’s the son of the first Aboriginal judge of the NSW Supreme Court, who died with Belltree’s mother when their car was run off the road to New England several years ago. The accident also damaged his wife, Jenny, a corporate computer researcher, now almost blind as a consequence. Either the crash was deliberate or the perpetrators were criminally negligent and Belltree is still seeking them. He is banished to Newcastle, a different beat to Sydney’s homicide round — teenage bandits, drugs, domestic violence.
He was nearly killed in Sydney by a corrupt colleague and now, an embarrassment to the impersonal forces that run the police, the “theys” and “them”, the former hot-shot homicide star has been quietly tucked away out of sight. But Belltree is ex-military and served in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, and while the army taught him the usefulness of routine chores as a corrective to the moments of chaos, the predictable and labour-intensive box-ticking of conventional policing is not his game.
Then a body is found in the bleak, open marshland of Ash Island, the fingers of the right hand severed and buried with the corpse. Is a serial killer responsible or is it gang-related, the work of local bikies, or something even more sinister?
As always with Maitland — he’s responsible for the famous novels featuring the Scotland Yard team of Detective Chief Inspector David Brock and Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla — his pacing and plotting are meticulous but, like Kellerman and McKinty, it’s his sense of place that immerses you in his storytelling.
As he says, people and the things that happen to them are shaped by the places in which they live and work. And he works the atmosphere of regional Australia with the same sense of authenticity that informed his Brock and Kolla series, creating a dynamic that enables his accomplished work to push against the seemingly rigid boundaries of formula.
Detail from the cover of Ash Island
by Barry Maitland