With the release of Monster, a new Alex Delaware a novel from Little, Brown, and Diagnosis: Dead, a collection of short stories he has edited for Penguin,, it seemed a good time to catch up with Jonathan Kellerman in his London hotel. The always urbane Mr K was trying English tea and looking back over a remarkably consistent series of intelligent thrillers.
Tea rather than coffee?
Well, anything would do actually – the publicity tours take it out of you…
Monster represents something of a darkening in your style, wouldn’t you say? Well, I didn’t make a concerted effort to say: I’m going to make a darker book. The characters came into my head, and I found myself taking it in the direction that it dictated. This book originated because I had always wanted to set the book in the hospital for the criminally insane. This is my version of the locked room mystery.
It’s amazing how the old tropes can still inspire writers. Exactly! I’ve always wanted to delve into archetypal themes, and this is my chance to do that. But, more importantly, I wanted to delve into insanity and madness in a way that I haven’t done. Because of my interest and my training, all of my books have dealt with psychopathology on some level, I just have never tackled it quite so head-on as in this book.
That leads on to another question: is this kind of initiative one of the ways that you keep the books fresh? Well, as long as I have a good idea, I think the books are going to stay fresh. And if I don’t have that good idea, I simply wouldn’t write the book. I’ve written fifteen novels, and of those, thirteen had been Delaware books. By some coincidence, I’ve done non-Delaware books every ten years or so. Billy Straight was last year. To me, Alex is still a good vehicle for telling the kind of stories that I want to tell. I have something of a perfectionist personality, and I really wouldn’t be happy with simply hacking them out. My agent (a man who doesn’t mince his words) would be the first to tell me if he felt the standard slipping, and it’s encouraging that he continues to find the books fresh. Without sounding pompous, I really do feel that I have a set of standards that I must adhere to, even leaving aside considerations of what the readers expect.
I get the impression that you still enjoy the act of writing. Oh, sure! That has to remain the principal reason for doing it, doesn’t it? I know it’s possible to write for money, and many very good writers have done so. But for me, it has to remain the principal thing that I actually want to do the writing.
So you haven’t yet considered a spectacular demise for Delaware? I think the reason Conan Doyle tried to kill off Holmes is because he had tired of the character. Chandler famously felt the same way about Marlowe. That hasn’t happened to me yet, but a writer these days has many examples of such ill-advised termination of the character. I’ll probably just let Alex retire into happy domesticity.
Have you found that readers are happy when you take a break from Delaware novels, as in Billy Straight recently? It’s hard to say: in fact, in sales terms, I’m told that there is little falling off when I do books such as Billy Straight. In fact, with the last book, I had a lot of people who told me they were glad I was trying something different. Ironically, going back to what I said earlier about just hacking it out: I honestly feel that a lot of the reading public would prefer the books if I really tried to stay in a more formulaic vein. It’s depressing to observe, but it does seem to be the case that people want more of the same. And then more of the same again. I’d go crazy.
So with the non-Delaware books, do you take a totally different approach to write them? I certainly think very deeply about the structure, which is usually radically different. In fact, though in some ways it is easier to write the non-Delaware books. The Delaware books are tough. However much you may try to introduce new elements, it is still necessary to observe certain givens. And the trick is to do this in an innovative way. In some ways, of course, I’m constricted: there are certain things I simply cannot have the characters do – they would simply be behaving in a way that the readers who had followed them would not accept.
You introduced some striking innovations in Survival of the Fittest. Yes, I decided to switch to different points in view in the book. I got the inspiration from my wife Faye, who’s done that in one of her novels.
How much are you and she the voice of reason for each other? Do you study each other’s work in progress, or simply present the other with the finished book? And can you both take criticism? Well, I think we have a good system in place. We tend to read each other’s books in sizeable chunks as they are written. I don’t know that you could say we are ruthless with each other – in fact, I suppose we are very kind. There are ways to make suggestions which are not destructive.
How do you keep all your technical information fresh? What connection do you have with paediatrics these days? Well, I still have an appointment. I don’t practice, but I am still officially in paediatrics. I keep in touch with journals, and I have a very good data bank of medical information and there is a key thing for a writer: knowing where to go. I know where to go to get the information that I need.
How did you make the decision to make your detective Milo gay? That was easy. When I wrote the first book in which I needed a foil for Alex, I wanted to work against the cliché of the tough detective, who’s either an alcoholic or whatever. Now Milo is tough, but I’m able to present a very different sensibility to that which readers are used to. Or were used to: there are many more gay characters in detective fiction these days.
Yes, Joe Lansdale, for instance, has a gay protagonist. Joe has said that he has had a good reaction from the gay community and, unsurprisingly, negative reaction from the Religious Right. There is another danger – as a straight writer, working with a gay character, there can be in negative feedback from gay readers. But both Joe and I seem to be doing it right. As to the Religious Right, I’m not sure they read many books, and I can’t remember a criticism from that quarter. Oh yes – I’ve had one letter in fifteen years saying why did you have to make your detective gay? I was once on a TV show with Jerry Falwell – do you know him over here?
Oh yes: his reputation, unfortunately, has travelled. Well, Falwell had an imposing-looking minder called Duke, who I guessed might share Gerry’s illiberal views. But he was talking to me about how much he enjoyed my books – until it slowly dawned on me that he was confusing me with Faye!
But you wouldn’t be afraid to have your books give offence to some quarters? Well, in an increasingly PC world, it’s hard to avoid that. I’ve even had somebody complaining about Alex eating veal. But I have no intention of ironing out all the things that might upset somebody somewhere. There are plenty of anodyne books around if people want them – I don’t intend mine to be.
And Eve Tan Gee looks at Monster…
When novelists have achieved the degree of success that Jonathan Kellerman has with his Alex Delaware novels, the most daunting problem has to be: how to beat the law of diminishing returns? If the ever-ingenious Kellerman has borrowed a leaf from Thomas Harris for this latest outing, it’s hard to complain in light of the fact that Monster is possibly the most compelling outing for his beleaguered protagonist yet.
This time around, Delaware is up against one of the most horrific and enigmatic mysteries he has had to face: how is it possible that a non-functional psychotic, incarcerated in a totally secure institution for homicidal madmen, has the ability to predict savage murders in the outside world?. A bit part actor is found murdered in the boot of his car, his body sawn in half. Sometime later, a psychologist at the hospital for the criminally insane is found murdered and mutilated in a similar fashion. Alex Delaware and detective Milo Sturgis become aware that an inmate’s illogical ramblings appear to predict the remarkable pattern. Soon, both men are deep in a morass of vengeance, betrayal and long-hidden family secrets, both inside the asylum and on the mean streets of Los Angeles.
If, at times, Kellerman devotes more energy to the kinetic narrative than the characterisation, Monster lacks not a whit of the latter, such is the author’s skill at freighting in the details that ensure a fully rounded humanity for his characters. Delaware remains as striking a protagonist as ever, and this is unquestionably his most hair-raising encounter with evil yet.