Bestselling US author deals with dark side of art world in his new thriller

  • Books
  • Sunday, 12 Apr 2020

Here's something you may not know about bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman, the man behind the popular Alex Delaware series. While he’s definitely fond of words, he’s also very skilled with art as well.

“I spent some time as a cartoonist, freelance artist and illustrator, and I continue to paint. Drawing and painting are probably what I do best, naturally. I drew by age four, and was painting by the age of eight. The art world has always fascinated me, ” said Kellerman, 70, in a recent email interview.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that his latest novel The Museum Of Desire takes place prominently in the art world. This 35th novel in the Alex Delaware series opens with a character making a gristly discovery: four people have been discovered murdered in a stretch limousine. Strangely, all the victims appear to have been killed in different ways, and none seem to have any connection with each other. It’s up to psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD detective Milo Sturgis to investigate. Soon however, more deaths take place, and the duo discover a sinister plot, one that takes them to a fancy gallery and into a dark side of art.

“This (new) book combines my dual interests in crime and art. I’ve always been fascinated with the tendency to attribute moral superiority to talented people – what psychologists call a ‘halo effect’. The opposite is often true. Years ago, I wrote an essay in Modern Painters magazine titled ‘Pearls, Yet Swine’. Talent guarantees nothing but talent. It’s been a consistent theme in my novels, ” said Kellerman.

The reference to psychologists is no surprise, given that Kellerman was a psychologist before becoming an author. He’s famously known for having written novels “in his garage at night”, while running a private practice back in the 1980s. Indeed, Kellerman credits his background as a psychologist as helping him with his writing. Over the years, he has been exposed to a wide variety of people, which helped him create the characters in his novel.

“My philosophy is if I’m interested in a character, my readers are likely to be interested, ” he said.

Kellerman wrote for many years, getting rejected countless times before finally hitting it big with his first novel When The Bough Breaks in 1985. That novel introduced the world to Alex Delaware, a child psychologist who is persuaded to come out of retirement to help in a case involving a young witness. He’s later appointed as a special consultant by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The book was made into a film in 1986, starring Ted Danson as Delaware.

“I obeyed the adage, ‘write what you know.’ I was hoping my experiences as a psychologist would translate into fiction. That said, Alex isn’t me. He’s younger, thinner, braver. But we’re definitely good friends, ” he added.

Since that first outing, Delaware has gone on to be the star of 34 more crime novels. The biggest challenge of writing such a long series? Making sure his writing process stayed fresh, fascinating and stimulating.

“The challenge is always the same. Drawing a myriad of ideas into a coherent, cohesive novel, creating a solid story that doesn’t cheat the readers, and developing memorable, interesting, believable characters.”

“This is not a job that gets easier over time. Quite the opposite! The advantage of having written 50 or so books is confidence. When I find myself in a tight spot, I know I can get out of it.”

Kellerman has also written other fiction and non-fiction books, often times collaborating with those close to him. His son, Jesse Kellerman is a playwright and novelist: he and his father collaborated on a few novels together, most notably 2014’s The Golem Of Hollywood.The senior Kellerman has also written two novels (2004’s Double Homicide and 2006’s Capital Crimes) with his wife Faye (herself a famed crime novelist most known for her Peter Decker and Rita Lazarus series). They are the only married couple who have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously for different books. Despite seeming like a winning combination, however Kellerman said there would probably be no more collaborations.

“(It was a) terrific experience, but in the end we decided that with four kids and a bunch of grandchildren, the only privacy we had was our writing, so we decided to resume going solo.”

Kellerman’s books, particularly the Delaware series, now has countless readers worldwide. The author said he was particularly glad whenever police officers told him they like his work.

“One homicide detective explained, ‘We get the bad guys 60% of the time, Jon, but you nail them 100%’. I find that fascinating, ” said Kellerman.

His psychologist background has made Kellerman particularly critical of mental health depictions in popular entertainment. To him, this is an area where most shows have done particularly poorly, with some attempts even being “downright abysmal".

“Perhaps I’m being too critical, but I’ve yet to find an accurate portrayal of mental health professionals or psychopathology when it comes to crime drama. There seems to be a preference for extremism rather than depth and truth, ” he elaborated.

“I think it would take someone really getting into the topic in depth rather than relying on cheap thrills or superficial plot hooks. Psychopathology is a complex issue.”

Kellerman is currently working on his next novel Serpentine, which he says is almost three quarters complete: readers can hopefully pick it up next year.

With so much success in the world of print, is it possible that we may one day see Alex Delaware on the screen? May we be seeing the famous investigator in his own television series, perhaps, or in a movie?

Kellerman does not rule it out.

“There is a chance, ” he said cryptically. “I’ll keep you posted.”

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