”When in doubt,” Raymond Chandler is said to have quipped, ”have a man come through the door with a gun.” Such crudity may have been acceptable in the era of Philip Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart, back when your basic L.A. private eye was a chain-smoking, wise-cracking alcohol abuser who’d just as soon slug a dame as carry her off to bed. But times have changed. Take, for example, the current career of Alex Delaware, Ph.D., hero of Jonathan Kellerman’s highly successful Southern California crime novels. Actually, hero may be too strong a word to describe Delaware, a child psychologist and an insightful soul whose idea of action is ordering a computer search of the professional literature.
Not that Devil’s Waltz, the seventh novel in the series, is free of violence. But the heavy action tends to take place just offstage before becoming an emotional and intellectual conundrum that Delaware — penetrating to the core of the evildoer’s twisted psyche — must unravel. Much of the hard police work gets done by Delaware’s sidekick, Milo Sturgis, an extremely macho gay LAPD detective still on suspension for having punched out his commanding officer on national TV.
In his latest adventure, Delaware finds himself summoned as a consultant in a bewildering medical case at Western Pediatrics Hospital. ”High intrigue,” he’s warned by the former colleague who hires him. ”What we’ve got is a whodunit, howdunit — a did-anyone-do-it. Only this is no Agatha Christie thing, Alex. This is a real-life mess.”
Heavy-breathing dialogue aside, what the doctors suspect is a case of ”Munchausen by proxy,” a fortunately rare disorder (named for the legendary liar Baron Munchausen) in which parents induce illness in their own children. ”Even the dry prose of medical journals,” Delaware realizes, ”had failed to dim the horror….Poisoning by salt, sugar, alcohol, narcotics, expectorants, laxatives, emetics, even feces and pus used to create ‘bacteriologically battered babies.’…Mothers most frequently the culprits. Daughters almost always the victims.”
The victim’s identity complicates matters further: One-year-old Cassie Brooks Jones is the adorable granddaughter of the hospital’s major benefactor and chief fiscal officer. Her family is not one to be pushed around by county social workers, even if it did have an older child who died under questionable circumstances. What’s more, no sooner has Dr. Delaware begun his investigation (under the pretext of helping the child conquer her fear of doctors) than further mysteries arise. The hospital itself seems to be going broke in a hurry, staff morale is sinking, and doctors are bailing out. Secretive administrators and neo-Nazi security guards run the place like a concentration camp. Key medical files vanish; a research assistant turns up dead; a reclusive toxicologist is murdered in a stairway. ”No matter what his social skills, what happened to him is horrible,” one of the characters laments. ”Sometimes it feels as if everything’s breaking down.”
Both suspects and suspect pathologies, as is customary in Kellerman’s novels, multiply rapidly. Who (if anybody) is poisoning Cassie Jones? Her mother? Father? Grandfather? A nurse? The doctor? In addition to a possible child abuser, the reader also has alcoholics, junkies, a kleptomaniac, and even a nymphomaniac to choose from. For all the contrivance of his plots and his jargon-cluttered style, Kellerman has an undeniable flair for dramatizing complex emotional issues without resorting to bromides or pat solutions. Highly competent entertainment. B+