No Words Wasted Sale

The New Republic Online
Thursday, May 20th, 2004



by Jonathan Kellerman

Pulps: Psychological Thriller

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

It's a cop book, it's a shrink book. Which is to say, it's a whodunit: The idea that there is a deep affinity between the investigations of policemen and the investigations of psychiatrists is an old one. Freud, remember, greatly admired Sherlock Holmes. Therapy, Jonathan Kellerman's fine entertainment, is a modern, Los Angeles, post-9/11 tale, but it's still Agatha Christie at heart — and that's the great thing. Its heroes are Alex Delaware, the sleuthing psychologist, and Milo Sturgis, the butch gay cop; there are no crazy chases here, and no stock characters either. There is only noir for 2004, which so far is rather a noir year.

Therapy suffers from too many characters, but it is otherwise a genuinely engaging tale. Not only is our hero a psychologist, but the crimes in the novel center around a dysfunctional group practice of psychologists. The shrinks are over-billing everyone, sleeping with their patients, hiring hit men to kill pesky patients (among other people), setting up fake group-therapy sessions with ex-cons to bilk the state out of federal funding. One of them actually uses Rwandan genocide to his financial advantage by defrauding Third World governments out of foreign aid. Kellerman's shrinks are self-promoting talk-show junkies, serial philanderers, abusive spouses, and generally dislikable people. Clinically interesting, no? Their practice is a vortex of psycho-sin, confirming everyone's worst fears about therapy, about shrinks, and about the trust we give these eminently fallible human beings. The irony here is that the chief "investigator" — Delaware — of the myriad crimes and abuses of the practice is not really a cop, but a psychologist himself: a delightful and instructive stroke.

In The Alienist, Caleb Carr had a psychiatrist use the clues of the crime to establish a profile of the possible killer — by looking for a person who matches that psychological profile, he solves the crime. But Kellerman's hero is almost accidentally a psychologist. He and the cop solve the crime by tracking down leads, hitting the pavement and interviewing everyone they can get their hands on, and doing a fair amount of Internet research. There is no "getting into the mind of the killer"; there is only the ordinary reality of working a case. (In fact, the impressions he gleans from his interviews are often "don't-need-a-Ph.D.-to-see-that" obvious, or they lead to rambling musing theories that never pan out.) Luckily, the ordinary reality of working a case is not prosaic but gritty and interesting and wonderfully enigmatic. Truthfully, the crimes are so wild and perplexing that the book becomes a kind of analytical joyride.

I love the fact that one of the patients who is killed — the primary murder — experienced a massive head injury, became a little obsessive-compulsive and paranoid, and ended up following his shrinks around in search of a good scandal for his burgeoning, crazy-person, one-man tabloid-journalism escapade. A stressed-out suburban mother might not have cared that things seemed hinky at the psychologist's office where she bitched about her husband and picked up her Valium, but put a paranoid obsessive with a closed-head injury on the case and you've got the makings of a great story line. I love the fact that this patient, Gavin, is the catalyst of our story. I love that his very own father as it turns out is not a well-to-do Beverly Hills dad struggling to keep up appearances as his business founders, but actually a contract killer hired by the Rwandan government to kill the shrink that killed his son — such justice! Never mind the fact that dad was trying to get in on the shrink group-therapy financial scam to augment his assassination fees. Or that the reason Gavin ended up with this particular group of head-shrinkers in the first place is that dear old dad sent his addled son to them as an entrée to exhort these Dr. Evils.

It's no wonder that the plot is so fantastic when reality is so dosed up itself. After all, we are all on something nowadays. Whether it's a self-help book or psychotherapy with a cocktail of medication, all of us are trying to get a little bit better. Every change of life requires reflection, every decision requires scrutiny, every mood requires healing, every dream deserves examining. Last Sunday's New York Times featured an article subtitled "Normal is a rare condition. So rare, in fact, that it may not even exist." As behavior becomes increasingly codified, the "norm, many agree, may increasingly be deviance." America! Finally, a country for deviants: I've never felt more at home. Riding the "neurodiversity" trend, Kellerman has done something fantastic — here we all are looking for the right pill, right mantra, right insight, and Kellerman writes about our saviors, the ones who take us to all those safe happy places, and he bastardizes them completely. In Kellerman's novel, the healers are sociopaths whose problems far exceed all our little bouts of depression, anxiety, and ADHD. The healers are the sickos: amoral, no, immoral, enterprising criminal masterminds so up to their eyeballs in pathology, a little heartbreak here or feelings of guilt there seem pretty tame. Who doesn't want to read about that? This book is every analysand's fantasy. No wonder it's selling so well.

But the fantasy gets the better of Kellerman. Getting a psychologist to solve the crimes of the psychologists rather takes back his wicked point. In a novel that joyfully demonizes our trusted guides, that imagines our own fragility mishandled and even abused, there is something too reassuring, too pulpy, about having one of the guild right its wrongs. It would have packed more punch if the novel were allowed uninhibitedly to debase the shrinks without the weird parallel of a good psychologist saving the day. But never mind. In a society where no one is normal anymore, and every state of mind is instantly medicalized, a novel about cruel psychologists is just what the doctor — no, the patient — ordered.

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