Kellerman's Sigmund Spade, running weary

December 28, 1997|By Judith Schlesinger | Judith Schlesinger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Survival of the Fittest," by Jonathan Kellerman. Bantam. 384 pages. $24.95.

All psychologists are detectives: They collect clues, round up the usual suspects, and try to solve interpersonal mysteries. But the fictional psychologist Alex Delaware, hero of Jonathan Kellerman's "Survival of the Fittest" (Bantam, 1997), gets to sleuth for real. Deputized by his best friend Milo, "the only openly gay detective in the LAPD," Alex spends his professional energy unraveling the twisted motives of serial killers and going undercover to trap them (nearly literally here, with a beautiful suspect).

Dr. Delaware is the hugely popular creation of Dr. Jonathan Kellerman, a child psychologist who makes his hero instructive as well as entertaining.

And there's no doubt that Delaware is entertaining - this is his 12th appearance since his 1985 debut in "When the Bough Breaks." In fact, the book's subtitle is "An Alex Delaware Novel" and its noisy advertising conveys the perfect expectation of another serial bestseller. It probably will be, with its tested formula and timely, chilling plot, despite the fact that, until its dizzy conclusion, it resembles therapy before the advent of managed care: slow and talky.

Delaware's resemblance to actual psychologists, living or dead, needs no disclaimer. He installs a Japanese garden and koi pond "to set the house up for therapy." (Doesn't everyone? And what )) branch of therapy requires fish?) We are also told that he "moves like a cat," is "attuned to every nuance," and is ever-sensitive to the needs of his perfect '90s woman, with whom he has consistently satisfying sex. Delaware is a cool customer, a kind of Sigmund Spade - when he tosses off one-liners such as "lots of pain but no revelations," we can almost hear the echo of Bogie's lisp.

But this is fiction, after all, not a psychological treatise (which Kellerman has also written), and Delaware is a charming and likeable fellow despite his perfection. "Fittest" is also sprinkled with evocative clinical insights - a murderer reflects that "it's not actually doing it - it's being ABLE to do it" - and juicy in-group references: "like a Rorschach card, his neutrality had led me to interpret." Kellerman lobs short skewers at diverse targets like homophobia, plastic surgery and O.J., but sometimes his flipness flops: "Do they have standup comedy in Jerusalem?" "In Israel, everyone is a prophet. It's the same thing."

Well, maybe not quite.

Then there's an unusually sloppy statement about "brown banquettes that were either real leather or fake," a startling typo or two, and some uncharacteristically straining prose: "the rotten spot I'd found at the core of my friend's golden apple made me wonder." Kellerman's endearing supportive cast is more sketched than fully drawn.

All of this points to the hasty (weary?) fulfillment of a multi-book contract. But whatever the facts of its assembly, the book is already piled high in the chain stores, the literary equivalent of buying a famous designer's entire spring line before it hits the runway. Kellerman is talented and offers a unique, even educational, perspective - perhaps it's time for him to tap a new wellspring.

Judith Schlesinger is a psychotherapist who holds a doctorate in psychology. She is a professor at Pace University and author of "Music and Madness," about the psychological and cultural impact of music.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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