"Dr. Death," by Jonathan Kellerman. Random House. 352 pages. $26.95.
I have to admit I was never caught up in the hysterical media coverage that swirled around Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the assisted-suicide doctor and activist. It seemed so unlikely that he prefigured some kind of new direction in the American psyche -- I mean he was just an ugly, skinny, profoundly depressing man, a fitting Grim Reaper, sure, but Americans, en masse, weren't about to embrace euthanasia just because Smilin' Jack showed them how.
So, I didn't expect the central debate in Jonathan Kellerman's new Alex Delaware thriller, "Dr. Death," to really compel me. Too many "issue" thrillers -- be they about assisted suicide, abortion, gay rights, racism, whatever -- are ruined by a sort of rank, Freshman 101 term paper compulsion for fairness and addressing the issues.
And the opening pages of Kellerman's latest didn't bode well: Alex Delaware, crack psychologist, and Milo Sturgis, his LAPD detective friend, check out the scene of a gruesome crime, the murder of the infamous Eldon Mate, a Kevorkian-esque publicity-hound doctor. Not that Kellerman dispatches the scene with anything less than perfect pace, incident and import; it's just that the irony of "Dr. Death" being murdered in his own suicide van, in a depraved parody of his assisted suicides, is kind of, well, boring. At least to me.
But, happily for this reader, Kellerman veers quickly away from the "controversy" of assisted suicide and into the far more satisfying depths of character, plot dynamics and philosophical rumination that made his last novel, "Monster," so intensely moving.
Here, as in "Monster," Kellerman pitches the book's emotional center askew, slightly apart from the expert procedural machinations. As in "Monster," we meet a female character who seems to embody heart-breaking loneliness. This time, she's a teen-age girl, Stacy Doss, whose mother was "assisted" by Dr. Death after a long, mysterious, sullen illness, and whose father might be a suspect in Dr. Death's murder.
Stacy gets one of the novel's best monologues, a memory of the family dog, Helen, "... the Ultimate Canine Moron Alien from the Vortex of Idiocy. She used to jump on [my brother] and paw him and lick him and he'd say, Get a brain ... But he ended up feeding her, walking her, cleaning up her poop. ... Toward the end, he was carrying her outside to poop, cursing the whole time. Then one night, he took her with him on one of his overnights. She looked awful -- rotting gums, her hair was falling out in clumps. Even so, when Eric [took] her out she looked thrilled -- like, Oh boy, another adventure. They were out all night. The next morning Eric came home by himself. ... No one talked about it. A few weeks later, Mom died."
The mystery of Mom's death is terrible -- it's terrible for all of us. The mystery of a pet's death is awful, too. And with hardly any term-paper rhetoric, Kellerman examines suicide, assisted and otherwise, with the same rigorously entertaining seriousness that he lavishes on his novel's murders.
It's unsettling -- but in the good way.
Ben Neihart's first novel was "Hey, Joe." His second, "Burning Girl," has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.