Book: Monster: An Alex Delaware Novel

Cover image

Monster: An Alex Delaware Novel

Author: Jonathan Kellerman
Publisher: Ballantine Books

A second-rate actor is found mutilated in a car trunk. Then a psychologist at a Los Angeles hospital for the criminally insane is murdered in a similar grisly fashion. Suddenly the incoherent ramblings of an inmate at the presumably secure institution begin to make chilling sense—they are, in fact, horrifying predictions.

Yet how can a barely functional psychotic locked behind asylum walls possibly know such vivid details of crimes committed in the outside world?

Drawn into a labyrinth of secrets, revenge, sex, and manipulation, Dr. Alex Delaware and Detective Milo Sturgis set out to unlock this enigma and put an end to the brutal killings—before the madman predicts their own demise….


Consulting psychologist Alex Delaware has a novel approach to crime-solving: he uses his training to unlock the secrets in the minds of the victims and jiggles the clues he finds there until the right scenario emerges. So when Alex’s LAPD buddy Milo finds the hacked-up body of a woman psychologist named Claire Argent in an abandoned car trunk—the second such murder in eight months—Alex heads for her place of employment: the Starkweather State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

One of Argent’s patients at Starkweather is Ardis “Monster” Peake, imprisoned for the unbelievably brutal murders of his mother and the family she worked for, including a small child and a baby. There’s at least one eerie similarity between the mutilation of their bodies and Argent’s: in all the bodies, the eyes were taken or destroyed. But Peake, diagnosed as schizophrenic and psychotic, is a well-behaved vegetable due to a steady diet of Thorazine, and he hasn’t left the hospital since his incarceration 15 years before. How is it, then, that Claire Argent’s assistant, Heidi Ott, swears she heard Peake say, “Dr. A. Bad eyes in a box” soon after he hears only the bare fact of her death? And why does Alex find Peake so empathetic, in spite of his violent past and chillingly vacant mind? When other mutilated bodies turn up, Alex and Milo begin to suspect that the real monster is very much at large. Like Kellerman’s 12 previous Alex Delaware mysteries, Monster builds to a big, teeth-clenching bang and ends with some very satisfying surprises. —Barrie Trinkle

Barnes and Noble

In 1998, Jonathan Kellerman took a brief detour from the main line of his career and published an excellent, non-series novel called Billy Straight. This month, he returns to familiar fictional territory with Monster, his 15th novel in 15 years and the 13th to feature child psychologist Alex Delaware.

Delaware, who first appeared in 1984’s Edgar Award-winning When the Bough Breaks, has, over time, become more and more disengaged from his primary profession. These days, he offers counseling and therapy to a limited number of individuals (one of whom is that eponymous runaway Billy Straight), and continues to serve as an expert witness in child custody cases. Mostly, though, his time and energy are taken up by his role as consulting psychologist to the Los Angeles Police Department. By now, he has virtually been partnered with the LAPD’s controversial, openly gay homicide detective, Milo Sturgis.

In Monster, Milo solicits Alex’s help on a brutal, particularly frustrating case. Claire Argent, a 39-year-old psychologist, has been murdered, mutilated, and dumped in the trunk of her Buick Regal. There were no witnesses to the killing, and there are currently no suspects. In the months prior to her death, Claire had worked at the aptly named Starkweather Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Attempts to connect Claire’s murder to her place of employment prove futile for a couple of reasons. First, her death occurred in the “outside world,” beyond the reach of Starkweather’s inmates. Second, her death bore striking similarities to an earlier murder, which was manifestly unconnected to Starkweather Hospital and its inhabitants.

Just as Milo and Alex turn their attention away from Starkweather, an inexplicable event takes place. Heidi Ott, a staff technician and former associate of Claire Argent’s, recounts a bizarre “conversation” with imprisoned mass murderer Ardis Peake, a man who was nicknamed “Monster” by the tabloid press and who had been a particular source of interest to Claire Argent. According to Heidi Ott, Ardis, who is severely schizophrenic, has recently spoken for the first time in years, uttering cryptic phrases that seem to allude both to Claire’s murder and to the subsequent murders of a pair of homeless derelicts. In the face of this questionable “evidence,” Starkweather Hospital once again becomes the focus of intense police scrutiny.

Ultimately, in a manner deliberately reminiscent of classic psychoanalysis, Alex finds the answers to a complex puzzle in the distant, unresolved past. In Claire Argent’s case, the past contains a traumatic secret: an act of family violence that provides essential clues to her character, her aspirations, her intense fascination with Ardis Peake, and his homicidal history. Ardis, of course, is inextricably bound to his own past, to a single night of violence in which he earned his nickname by butchering an entire family. As Alex investigates that long-forgotten massacre, he begins to discern the outline of another, hidden figure, a figure who may have played a role in those earlier killings, and who just might provide the link between past and present events. The search for that elusive figure eventually becomes the dramatic centerpiece of this intricately constructed novel.

Monster, incidentally, is dedicated “To the Memory of Kenneth Millar,” who was better known to mystery readers as Ross Macdonald, creator of the classic Lew Archer series, books which were themselves heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, and in which the unresolved past invariably leaves its mark on the present. In his own, very different fashion, Kellerman takes the Macdonald tradition and carries it forward, giving us, in Monster, an absorbing mystery that has much to say about the human capacity for cruelty, and about the fundamental importance of discovering—and confronting—the demons of the past.

As always, Kellerman brings his own clinical experience to bear on the subject at hand, and the result—in addition to its many other virtues—is a compelling portrait of the harsh realities of mental illness. The scenes in Starkweather Hospital—with its sad, shuffling population of damaged, overmedicated zombies—are simultaneously moving and frightening. Through an uncommon combination of empathy and narrative expertise, Kellerman shows us the visible face of madness, and it’s not a pretty sight. But it is a powerful one, and it gives this book an added dimension, a level of reality that very few novels—in or out of the mystery genre—ever manage to achieve. —Bill Sheehan

Views: 399 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.017 sec