- - Thursday, March 26, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MOTIVE: AN ALEX DELAWARE NOVEL

By Jonathan Kellerman

Ballantine, $28, 352 pages

The investigating team of Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis is coping with unsolved “cold cases” and an ice-cold killer in this crafty and cleverly plotted mystery.

There is an almost documentary tone to the work schedule of clinical psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD homicide detective Milo Sturgis, who patiently and relentlessly stake out locations and suspects in their determination to bring justice to the dead. There is always another dead body and for a dedicated detective, that is one too many, especially when there is not only a dearth of clues but what exists is a maze of contradiction.

Cold cases are the bane of the existence of Milo Sturgis and that is why he enlists the aid of his unofficial partner, Alex Delaware. It is applying a different kind of thinking to a crime that makes them successful and they make entertaining reading since their dialogue is acerbic and sardonic. This episode of the Milo and Alex show begins with the murder of Katherine Hennepin, an average young woman found strangled and stabbed in her apartment. Her body is tidily laid out on her bed under a blanket and in the dinette nearby the table is set for dinner for two, with salads and a bottle of wine. The only suspect is a former lover who has an alibi acceptable even to Milo who reluctantly “backburners” the case. Yet Alex reflects that everything about the crime scene, no break-in, rape, theft or opportunistic weapon “suggested a killer well known by the victim and driven by nuclear rage.”

He is, of course, right, but it takes several more murders before the monster is trapped. The next killing on which Alex is called in two weeks later by Milo is what they view as an execution slaying of Ursula Corey, who is wealthy, bejeweled and has two bullets in her head. She turns out to be the ex-wife of prosperous lawyer Grant Fellinger, who insists he remained friends with his former wife. However, he describes her as so obsessed about sex that she never wore panties. As Alex observes, “professional judgments about a crime are often formed early, sometimes during the first moments of viewing a crime scene. That can lead to tunnel vision but more often than not, seasoned detectives’ expectations are met because patterns do exist and ignoring them is stupid and reckless.”

Which turns out to be a shrewd assessment of the situation facing them. The obvious suspects are too obvious and new clues lead back to the Hennepin murder and why she fled a tattoo shop to which her boyfriend had taken her. Meantime, the killer strikes again. This time it is a lawyer, who is found beaten to death in a blood-spattered apartment. And there is a sad little woman who roams the streets, whose body is found by cleaners. The detectives are by now closing in on the murderer, whose identity is neatly shrouded and who lives up to all of the psychologist’s suspicions of nuclear rage and revenge as motivation for the ferocity of his killings.

Assessing the situation, Alex notes that his thoughts about the case had solidified because each of the murders had been “ripe with misdirection.” He cites one as a “textbook crime of passion committed by an intimate,” another as a “textbook professional execution” and a third as “the perfect throwaway” — a pathetic case of a woman with a background of vagrancy, theft, drugs and panhandling. A fourth victim is “left to decay in a room full of oddities.”

There is the crucial point at which Milo and Alex know who the killer is, and he is frighteningly close to others involved in the case. He is also as frighteningly efficient at killing as he is at concealing his own identity. As Alex sees it, “His real motive is he enjoys stalking and destroying . Psychopaths are gifted at sniffling out need.”

The psychopath who has fulfilled his gruesome needs so often comes to a well-merited end with two shots from Milo’s gun. It has to be two because he is wearing a security vest. And one of the few bright spots in the plot is that one young woman does escape the killer because she has the sense to run off with a really nice man. Alex and Milo are pleased.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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