Breakdown: criminal psychology with a social conscience

BreakdownThe early Dr Alex Delaware investigations were all about the science of the mind. Author Jonathan Kellerman used his psychologist character to explore the impulses that accompany insanity, to pull apart the pathological behaviours that can create death, despair, chaos and cruelty. Then the series stopped being so analytical, the mystery and murders became submerged by tedious, plodding procedural, and the books morphed into a standard American soap opera. I’d lost interest in whichever trendy restaurant Delaware and his perfect partner were eating in, and found the increasingly ‘action man’ adventures less than credible.

However, the synopsis of Breakdown snagged my attention, as did the opening chapters. A fragile actress gets chewed up and spat out by the TV industry. Her psyche unravels; her young son is put at risk. Dr Delaware helps a colleague to stabilise her temporarily… and then a few years later she’s in crisis, and he’s on call. It’s a genuinely gripping, credible scenario – just because she’s unbalanced, does that mean her fears and outlandish ideas are untrue? Maybe someone really did murder her mother. When the first dead body turns up, and other young women go missing, Delaware gets involved – and so did I…

It’s not just the fictional mystery which make ‘Breakdown’ a good read. There’s also some powerful social commentary in here, about the state of care for vulnerable people in the modern world. Kellerman pulls no punches about the practice of out-sourcing mental health care to underfunded, semi-political organisations – or the dependence of ‘street people’ upon charitable hostels, and the lack of consistency which leaves susceptible individuals isolated and alone.

To my frustration, the middle section of the book bogged down in extended dialogue between Delaware and his detective friend, Milo Sturgis, in which every single possible scenario was dragged out and discussed in fine detail from multiple dimensions. The book would’ve been better if Kellerman’s editor has hustled this bit along and dropped some of the unrewarding debate. A streamlined story would’ve been more satisfying.

Once all the puzzle pieces were in place, the pace picked up again which made the final chapters far more rewarding. There’s some smart science in here – used to disguise the murder weapon, then implicate the possible murderers, and finally to locate the place where the bodies are buried. There are some neat twists and some snappy dialogue, particularly when the irascible medical examiner is asked for his opinion.

As you might expect from such an experienced author, Kellerman sustains fine threads of tension throughout and brings the multiple plots to a logical and emotionally satisfying conclusion. This time around he avoids hysterical sentimentality and far-fetched, implausible ‘protagonist in peril’ moments. The result is a measured, mature, real-world mystery.

‘Breakdown’ may not be the best crime/thriller I’ve read this year, but it’s certainly the best one I’ve read by JK for an age.

7/10

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

Breakdown by Jonathan Kellerman is available as an ebook or hardback

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