In the post-O.J.-trial universe, mystery novels that attempt to titillate readers with forensic arcana — an errant bloodstain, a fingernail scraping, an unruly strand of DNA — may be greeted with yawns. What’s left to shudder over when you’ve seen it all on Court TV? That ennui may be good news for shrink-turned-scribe Jonathan Kellerman, who prefers to construct his tales of malevolence by plumbing the murkier, muckier realms of the human mind. Self-Defense, the ninth in his series of mysteries featuring California psychologist Alex Delaware, keeps your neurons humming by sifting the kinds of evidence that can’t be put under a microscope — dreams, memories, half-forgotten hunches.
Not that Kellerman isn’t happy to milk trendy topics for all their headline value. Self-Defense manages to incorporate repressed memory, hypnosis, murderer groupies, serial killers, copycat criminals, and jailhouse autobiographers into its hero’s attempt to unravel two puzzles, one the present-day case of a patient who may be the target of a killer; the other the young woman’s recurring nightmare that seems to be the memory of a decades-old crime.
If there’s a flaw in the Alex Delaware novels, which are rarely less than intelligent and engrossing, it may be the too-good guy at their core. Delaware, a wealthy, attractive professional who tends to his girlfriend, Robin, and his koi pond with equal earnestness, is poised, calm, even-kelled, sympathetic — in short, a perfect therapist but a drab detective. If he ever had a cranky day, a panicky moment, a fleeting neurosis, it happened when readers weren’t looking. Perhaps it’s time for Kellerman to solve that mystery. Until then, Self-Defense will do nicely. B