Another great addition to the Alex Delaware series, Unnatural History is an interesting book let down slightly by author Jonathan Kellerman’s slight lack of knowledge about the seedy underbelly of society. While the 38th in this long-standing series isn’t my favourite by a long shot, it’s still a great read for fans. If you’ve never read an Alex Delaware novel, I wouldn’t start here, but if you’re already a lover of the sophisticated child psychologist and his police detective friend Milo Sturgis, then I’d definitely check it out.
Kellerman is an expert in the rich and famous, as well as psychology, and he shines in these areas in this latest release. It begins with the brutal murder of a professional photographer and mega-rich kid whose business mogul father helped him finance his artist endeavours.
Discovered by his latest assistant, the photographer is found killed in his bed, and motive isn’t difficult to find when it’s discovered that he was not only incredibly rich, but also very naive. The victim’s most recent photographic project had been a series of images of the homeless, a before image of what they look like generally and a second after they had dressed up in a costume to embody their dream career. From a pilot to a film starlet, there are several dreams fulfilled in the strange project turned social experiment, but Detective Milo Sturgis and Dr Alex Delaware soon start to wonder if there was more to it.
The subject of homelessness, and the drug addiction and mental issues that often accompany it, is handled with about as much tact as an episode of South Park. Kellerman knows all the right things to say, and while he’s right that these problems are societal failings and not individual issues, his portrayal of the homeless is a little ham-handed. There’s one particular line about al dente pasta that made me physically wince.
Thankfully, Kellerman makes the smart choice and spends most of the novel dwelling on the side of society he knows more about: LA’s rich and powerful. There’s what looks like the beginnings of a very good literary commentary on money not being able to buy style or brains when we meet the victim’s incredibly wealthy father, and see a comparable interview similar to one recently held with one of the homeless characters. However, it doesn’t quite land, and I for one felt like a little more finesse could have made that chapter something truly stunning.
There’s plenty of wealthy, privileged and downright pretentious suspects to be going along with in the novel, and this is where Kellerman shines. His portrayal of the photographer’s father, who sired multiple children with many women and then left them with only money to remember him by, is particularly inspired. The author sets the character up and a suave, mysterious and presumably debonair businessman in the background, and it’s a true shock when we meet the character. Family intrigue is the second line of investigation, and it opens up a can of worms featuring a long-lost brother who’s an investment expert, a dead sister and a drug addicted mother.
The victim, Donny, real first name Adonis, also has a model girlfriend and a jealous assistant with an overbearing mother, and some of the interactions the protagonists have with these characters are truly inspired. There’s one in particular, at the assistant’s house, which is almost disturbing and really shows the author’s prowess and how great this novel had the potential to be.
While these elements of brilliance are what makes Unnatural History a good read, it can be tough to get over the dreadful portrayal of the less fortunate. Alongside the- frankly odd- portrayal of the homeless is a general desperation to make his narrator and co-protagonist Dr Alex Delaware seem what I believe is known as ‘woke’, otherwise known as generally empathetic to normal people. It goes rather wrong, with phrases such as ‘man-spreading’ used un-ironically incorrectly. The term refers not to men who spread their legs in a single chair, as Kellerman uses it, but to a man who takes up space that should be ocupied by others, often women. Like men who take up extra space on a bus or train seat. It’s a valiant effort, but I can’t help but feel that in instances like that, a quick online search could’ve easily helped to overcome the difficulty and make the book seem much more sincere in its purpose.
It’s nice to see an author trying to be sensitive, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark in this case. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it was parody. As it is, it’s clear that the writer has simply conducted rudimentary research, then patched it together as best he can. It’s novels like this that show why we need more diversity in literature, particularly when it comes to writers from less privileged backgrounds. Reading about it only gets you so far.
If I’m brutally honest, I think that Unnatural History is a good enough thriller that’s let down by the author’s desperation to appeal to what he believes the current thinking is and to give a sympathetic portrayal of the homeless that comes off entirely tasteless. Kellerman has a great ability to bring the world of the wealthy to life and show how out-of-touch the rich and wanna-be famous are, but no idea about those on the other side of the spectrum- and I say that as someone who’s been dirt-poor and is never going to be LA rich. I think that while the plot and some of the characters are interesting, it’d be better for Kellerman to stick to what he does best in future, or does more research and actually talks to some people experiencing homelessness.