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Book Review

Author Takes On Terror in Novel of Childhood Tragedy

March 20, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Blood Test by Jonathan Kellerman (Atheneum: $14.95)

Jonathan Kellerman is bound to be compared to the sturdy, appealing crop of youngish, talented authors who have been writing Los Angeles thrillers in the last 1 1/2 decades. He's as morose as Kem Nunn, as outrageously sexual as T. Jefferson Parker; he creates characters as blithely as Mark Schorr or Dick Lochte; and he plots as well as Roger Simon or Wayne Warga. Alexander Delaware, Kellerman's fictional detective-psychologist (whose second adventure this is) can certainly have as long a run as his author wishes.

But two characteristics allow Kellerman to stand apart from our other hard-boiled L.A. writers. Kellerman holds a Ph.D. in psychology, and he has written three (not one) previous books. His first, "Psychological Aspects of Childhood Cancer," establishes him as a man who has more on his mind than constructing a plot, and his second, "Helping the Fearful Child," suggests that he has intimately known terror, not in any abstract sense, but as a constant professional adversary.

Varying a Technique

In leaving nonfiction books of psychology and beginning a secondary fictional career, Kellerman would appear to be attempting a variation of a psychological technique; an exploration of dreams--for surely fiction is a kind of extended dream-state--in an effort to vanquish those terrible emotions that sweep us away in times of tragedy. This is a book about terror in the universe, about a world where childhood cancer is an everyday occurrence, where the ultimate and constant question is not simply why me ? but why ?

But inextricably combined with these medical and philosophical considerations, Kellerman is--more than any other contemporary hard-boiled writer--a strict and witty follower of Raymond Chandler. "Blood Test" is, after all, a thriller, and in the first two paragraphs here, Alexander Delaware (who is also a psychological consultant for traumatized children) watches Richard Moody, a crazed sociopath who has been abusing his wife and children, "get the bad news from the judge."

Two stories entwine here. The first, the "simple" one, revolves around the sordid Moody family--a dimwit wife who's left her sociopath husband for another sociopath who looks just like him. Moody tries to steal away his children and sends depressing items over to the family--like disemboweled dogs. His ex-wife weeps, his 3-year-old daughter flirts and the disturbed Moody son is already growing up to be exactly like dad, full of repression and rage.

Childhood Cancer

The second story involves a literal childhood cancer (for the point is made here repeatedly that all meaningless childhood suffering is a kind of mutation "in an otherwise mundane species," a painful cancer of the soul). Young Woody Swope has non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He has been brought to Los Angeles for diagnosis and treatment from an inland small town east of San Diego--a place-in-the-mind somewhere between Julian and Temecula. His parents, Garland and Emma Swope, are quintessential farming folk.

Delaware comes into this situation to counsel the parents to go on with an unpleasant but effective chemotherapy treatment. But soon the Swope parents are found dead in shallow graves in Benedict Canyon; young Woody has been abducted and Nona turns up missing. If Woody isn't found soon his cancer will "explode," and this turns Delaware to his own secondary career of detecting.

It's the fight between "good" and "evil" that is so thought-provoking. Not just the chase between the good and bad guys, but the questions of the-nature-of-life itself. The young cancer victim is isolated in a Laminar Air Flow Unit that looks like, and functions as, a solitary prison cell. An arrogant doctor who really does have the power to heal is put into jail. Who's bad? Who's good? How does a "good" man behave?

These are all Raymond Chandler's very favorite questions, of course, and the last 40 pages here are an hommage to the grand master of the hard-boiled, with greenhouses and deserted oil fields imported directly from "The Big Sleep," and a species of rare citrus called "Chandler pommelos." "Blood Test" offers great fun to cognoscenti of this genre .

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