Unnatural History is the 38th entry in the wildly successful Alex Delaware series. I began reading it soon after the first volume was published; When the Bough Breaks came out in 1985, so the series has been going strong for close to forty years, and very well may continue for many more. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
For the uninitiated, Delaware is a child psychologist; Kellerman is also a child psychologist, and his earlier books incorporated his area of expertise, placing him in a subgenre all his own. I’ve wished many a time that he would write more books along these lines, but he hasn’t done a lot of it lately, and in this book, there are only glimpses of it. Nevertheless, the story held my attention.
I’m not giving you much of the plot, because there’s a synopsis for that, but in large strokes, the story is about the murder of the son of one of the world’s wealthiest men. He’s an odd duck, not terribly bright; his mother is dead, and his father is a hands-off parent, to say the very least. Our victim has unlimited access to money, and that’s about it. He makes a splash in the art world by photographing homeless people in costumes that reflect their deepest dreams. Find a derelict street person, and find out what they always wanted to be. A pilot? A surgeon? A ballerina? Offer them the chance to be photographed as if that’s what they are now, and give them a juicy wad of cash for their trouble; then send them back to the streets where they came from.
The family structure for this strange young artist is truly bizarre; the father marries, and he fathers a child. One child, no more. Then, a couple years later, he divorces his wife and does the same thing again. The children of these unions are never introduced to one another.
Thus, Milo has plenty of meaty material to work with, and with such strange circumstances, Alex is tapped to analyze the participants.
Delaware works part time as a kiddie shrink, often consulting when there is a court case involving insurance claims or divorce. However, he still has plenty of time to work for the Los Angeles Police Department, consulting on cases where a psychologist’s input is valuable. His BFF, Milo Sturgis, is a homicide detective, spurned by others in the department because of his sexual orientation. Often as not, Delaware ends up riding along as an unofficial partner.
This aspect of the series—the almost-a-cop—is usually where things start to slip a little, when anything does. I want to buy the premise, and so I can go along with it as long as it doesn’t become too obviously unrealistic. We all want to be entertained, right? So when Alex trots out to the patrol car and slides in beside Milo, I smile and nod, and I push away the little skeptic within me that says, “But really…?”
There have been a few Delaware books that have gone sideways for me for that reason, books where Delaware puts on his Kevlar vest and packs a revolver. I am happy to say that this isn’t one of them. In fact, the manner in which these details are dealt with is one of its strengths. First of all, there are times when Milo wants Alex to go with him, but Alex is busy. He has to be in court that morning. Thank you! Then later on, toward the climax, there’s a situation that (no spoilers) shakes out in a way I find the most believable of anything Kellerman has written. It’s satisfying, without sacrificing the fun of the story.
The whodunit at the end might be the nicest touch of all.
I recommend this mystery to Kellerman’s faithful readers, and to those that love the genre.