by Jonathan Kellerman

Published by Random House

396 pages, 1999


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Here a Monster, There a Monster

Reviewed by Jack Curtin


In a recently published essay, Jonathan Kellerman had this to say about Monster, his 13th Dr. Alex Delaware crime novel: "I'd always wanted to set a novel in a hospital for the criminally insane -- to explore the essence of madness in a way I'd never done before and put a new twist on the locked-room mystery."

I'd say he got it half right.

While most of this book's first five chapters and several others throughout Monster take place at the Starkweather State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, just east of Los Angeles, it is arguable whether the novel is actually "set" there. Most of the significant action and major revelations happen outside the hospital's walls. For that matter, I'd contend (and this is hardly a criticism) that, despite Kellerman's obvious research into the handling and care of patients in mental institutions, the relationship between madness and evil is no more effectively explored in these pages than it has been in most of the previous Delaware psychological thrillers (beginning with the Edgar-winning When the Bough Breaks, 1985).

The locked-room twist, though -- that, Kellerman nails cold.

* * *

In Monster, it's the putative killer rather than the victim who is locked away behind unopened doors. He is Ardis Peake, a madman who shocked a small California community 16 years ago with a brutal and murderous rampage so horrific that the press bestowed the sobriquet "Monster" upon him. Peake has been incarcerated at Starkweather ever since and is a virtual vegetable, heavily drugged, who rarely leaves his tiny cell.

How is it, then, that a pair of murder cases under investigation by Delaware's LAPD detective pal, Milo Sturgis, involve victim mutilations that are strikingly similar to those committed by Peake all those years ago? Is it mere coincidence that the more recent of these two crimes took the life of Dr. Claire Argent, a new Starkweather psychologist who had lately shown particular interest in Peake? And why has the usually non-communicative Peake suddenly begun spouting cryptic messages, one of them seeming to express familiarity with details of Argent's death that have not been released to the public, while another forecasts murders yet to occur?

When Milo initially takes Alex, who is acting as a consulting psychologist to the LAPD, out to Starkweather, neither man is even aware of Peake's existence. They're just hoping to find some lead in solving Argent's murder. Her naked, mutilated corpse was found in the trunk of her car. It was the second of two similar crimes. The first victim, taken eight months earlier, had been 25-year-old Richard Dada, a would-be actor whose body was actually cut in half. Linking this pair of cases is the fact that both victims' eyes were hacked out (a trademark of Peake's).

Given that Starkweather is the L.A. warehouse for criminals too crazy or dangerous for the regular prison system ("Ghoul Central," Milo calls it), the two investigators want to determine whether any inmate who knew Claire Argent, and might have been capable of murdering her, had recently been released or escaped. Hospital director William Swig assures them that no patient has left Starkweather for any reason during his five years at the helm; nor, for that matter, could most of the inmates survive in the outside world, much less plan a killing spree.

Milo and Alex's tour of the facilities, conducted by one of the inmates, appears to back up Swig's contention. The investigators also learn that medical staffers agree with the director's easy dismissal of any notion that Argent's murder was tied to her work at Starkweather. Only Heidi Ott, a young group therapy technician who was Argent's assistant, shows much real interest in the case at all.

Finding no apparent leads at Starkweather, the investigators shift their focus to Argent's personal life. But that seems to offer even fewer clues. Her house is so Spartan that Alex, when he first visits there, thinks it "a vacant place; it seemed airless, incapable of sustaining life." Her ex-husband, an attorney, stresses that their two-year marriage was hardly a relationship at all, aside from sessions of impassioned sex, and that he literally knew nothing about her life and work. Argent's parents, flying in from Pittsburgh to claim her body, try to paint a happy relationship when questioned, but they had clearly been kept at arm's length, as well. In fact, they never spoke to, much less met, her husband.

She was a strange woman, indeed. But the biggest mystery about Claire Argent is this: Why did such an accomplished and respected alcoholism specialist and researcher recently give up a seemingly ideal situation at County General Hospital to take a job at a place like Starkweather?

The case finally begins to open up when technician Ott telephones Milo. She claims that, upon hearing of Argent's murder, the habitually silent Peake had suddenly said, "Dr. A. Bad eyes in a box." With this in mind, Alex and Milo return their attention to Starkweather, where they are now greeted with increasing hostility by hospital staffers, who express doubt that Ott heard what she says she did. But the young technician follows up with a second Peake pronouncement, this one on tape. And within hours, the prisoner's words -- "choo choo bang bang" -- turn out to be prophetic when homeless twins are found dead, one killed by a train, the other by a bullet in his head.

Alex believes that some answers to this crime may lie in the facts of Peake's original massacre in Treadway, California. Learning more about what happened there 16 years ago is no simple task, however, as the entire town is gone, replaced by a retirement community called Fairway Ranch. Yet Alex does manage to find the sheriff (now a resident of Fairway) who handled the Peake murder case, along with the widow of the editor/publisher of the defunct Treadway newspaper. Each provides some intriguing, if not immediately productive, insights into the bloody events of that terrible night when the "Monster" earned his nickname by slaying his own mother and all four members of the prominent local family which had befriended and taken them in.

* * *

Kellerman's plot unfolds, at perhaps too leisurely a pace, in a series of additional convolutions and revelations, some of them merely red herrings, others eventually tying neatly into the main storyline. Newspaper clippings found in a box that Argent left behind at County General suggest that she went to work at Starkweather specifically to get close to Peake. A want-ad found in victim Dada's pocket puts Alex and Milo on the trail of a small, independent movie company that seems not to exist; but the title of a purported script, Blood Walk, is deemed pertinent enough to keep them searching. Alex's one-on-one session with Peake inside his cell yields no direct communication between them but does evoke an extraordinary physical response from the inmate.

Unfortunately, despite all of the interesting things that go on here, the story often feels padded. For instance, the first time Alex sits and watches Milo going through a lengthy telephone call, getting shuttled from person to person but maintaining his growing anger until he gets what he wants, might be chalked up to verisimilitude; the second and third times seem suspiciously like attempts simply to up the book's word count. Alex's live-in lover Robin pops up now and again (in order to satisfy regular readers), but her presence serves no purpose in advancing the plot; it only reminds us that the psychologist eats regularly and has an active sex life. For that matter, Alex, while he carries out much of the legwork that finally unravels this mystery, seems more an observer of events than a participant in them. There is never any sort of direct confrontation between him and anyone who is either dangerous or threatening.

Thanks to another murder, this one at Starkweather itself, Monster finally moves toward its end game and a potentially explosive climax in the mountains overlooking the Fairway Ranch retirement community. By this point, Alex and Milo have figured things out and know exactly with whom and what they are dealing, but the situation is complicated by the fact that their foe holds two innocent hostages.

In many ways, this ultimate and long-awaited confrontation reflects the novel's greatest weakness: there is no sense of real menace in its pages. Throughout, the various victims of depraved machinations are characters about whom the reader knows or cares very little, and their deaths seem almost routine. Now, at the end of the book, the hostages whose fate lies in the balance are two women, one of whom appeared only briefly in a single earlier scene, while the other hadn't been seen before this moment of her near-death. Given how the story is presented, the reader's emotions are left as disconnected from events as the hero's actions have been.

Fans of the Alex Delaware series will most likely welcome Monster, whatever its faults, especially since author Kellerman skipped an installment last year to publish the non-series novel Billy Straight. And to be fair, while this book may not quite measure up to the high standards of most novels in this series (1990's Time Bomb, 1994's Bad Love and 1997's Survival of the Fittest would all be excellent samplers for the uninitiated), it does remind us that there are monsters... and there are monsters. Some are clearly identified, while others lurk in the shadows just beyond the light. | December 1999


JACK CURTIN is a freelancer based in the Philadelphia area.