Heartbreak Hotel by Jonathan Kellerman ( Penguin Random House, 2017)
“Thalia Mars's wide amused mouth was augmented by meticulously applied coral lipstick. Her eyes were clear brown. Shoulder-length hair tinted the ivory of old piano keys had been whipped into a meringue of waves. Nearly a century of gravity had done its inevitable thing with her jawline, but a dagger-thin face below the cloud of hair retained enough integrity to suggest a once-firm chin and prominent cheekbones.” This is the introduction that child psychological/police consultant, Alex Delaware, delivers of an intriguing character, Thalia Mars, who is three weeks shy of her 100th birthday in Jonathan Kellerman's latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel.
Character development and complex plots are the cornerstones of the Alex Delaware series. Heartbreak Hotel, the 32nd installment, ranks as one of the best yet, with an intriguing plot and fascinating characters, who rank from mobster molls, to slick lawyers, to corrupt business men, to serial killers.
The novel opens with Alex Delaware being summonsed to meet Thalia Mars, who has come upon him through Google. Mars has been a resident of Cabin Uno in the once posh Hollywood Hotel, the Aventura. Delaware figures that she has been living in this fading luxury for about 70 years, and wonders how did the old lady afford to dwell in such style. The Aventura, now fading and dilapidated, still serves as a haven for Hollywood's elite who desire privacy in which to recover from plastic surgery. Thalia's little home is set away from the larger hotel, and seems to be the only occupied cabin in the area, leaving the centenarian vulnerable and very alone.
Alex is taken immediately with the charming and sharp woman, who hints about a dark past and poses several questions of Alex that pique his curiosity about her life. She begins by explaining why she contacted him to begin with. “I became interested in your involvement in . . .less savory matters,” she starts the conversation.
The questions which Thalia begins to ask lend towards philosophical answers. She queries of Delaware, “What's the current psychological wisdom with regard to guilt,” “Can total scoundrels be changed,” and “are most people morally sound?” At the end of their conversation, Dr. Delaware is not quite sure what his ancient patient is seeking but agrees to return to see her on the morrow. Mars gives Alex an overly generous check of $6000, and when he protests her largesse, she waves him off and says if he doesn't use all of the retainer on her treatments, he should donate the excess to the Western Pediatrics Hospital, one of her favorite charities, and Alex's place of work when dealing with disturbed children.
When Alex returns for his second session with Mars, to his dismay, the ancient lady has died during the night. Fortunately, a sharp-eyed, young EMT corroborates Delaware's observation that although Thalia looks at peace, there are some indicators, such as unusual mottling of skin by her nose, that are suspicious and may indicate that foul play has occurred in Mars's passing.
Alex takes the opportunity to call in his best buddy, Lt. Milo Sturgis of the LAPD, and asks him to come to the Aventura to have a look. Thus, the two sleuths begin their investigation into the life and death of the enigmatic Thalia Mars, in order to untangle the web of questions that Mars had begun to probe with Alex Delaware just the day before.
Like most novels of the detective genre, there is not a lot of action in Heartbreak Hotel. The Delaware series is more about how Sturgis and Delaware probe the past, look for clues, and put the pieces of a puzzle together in order to figure out a mysterious case. While working on Thalia's murder, it is actually the beautiful Robin, Delaware's long time girlfriend, who poses a question that sets the two men on the right path to figuring out who had the motive to slay a centenarian.
Woven into the complicated investigation are all of the earmarks of an Alex Delaware, including Sturgis' raiding the Delaware fridge to concoct creative sandwiches out of the left-overs, and the gentle nudging of Alex's French bulldog Blanche, who loves belly rubs and attention. These are the little details that give the reader an inside peak into the relationships of the clinical Delaware with his lady, his dog, and his best friend.
Jonathan Kellerman, a psychologist himself, who is currently a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, has won both the coveted Edgar and Anthony Awards for his best selling suspense novels. Married to the novelist, Faye Kellerman, author of the Peter Decker/Rina Lazurus books, it is intriguing (and perhaps a little sinister) to imagine being in the Kellerman household when the couple discusses plots and characters of their latest novels. Their son, Jesse, is now penning his own books as well.