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SUNDAY PROFILE : Sweet Mystery of Life

Jonathan and Faye Kellerman have a lot in common. Most couples do. But what were the chances they would both become successful crime novelists?

April 21, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What are the odds that two kids would fall in love at first sight, marry, become a DDS and PhD respectively, raise four children and, somewhere along the way, independently and inexplicably decide to write crime novels, producing one novel per year for the past 10, all bestsellers?

Meet Kellerman and Kellerman.

Unless you're a mystery maven, you may have seen the name in bookstores and assumed it belongs to a single author. Or maybe you know they're husband and wife, and assume they write together.

But even Jimmy the Greek would probably not have taken bets that psychologist Jonathan and dentist Faye--neither of whom had a previous interest in crime detection--would become rich and famous writing tales of blood and guts from separate offices in the same kosher household.

"Life," as Jonathan likes to say, "is full of fun surprises."

*

It is a brilliant, breezy afternoon in Beverly Hills and the Kellerman household is ticking, as usual, like a Rolls-Royce clock.

Although the two younger children (ages 3 and 10) are at home behind the electronic gates with their parents, three dogs, a housekeeper and the Kellermans' full-time assistant (who answers the door), there is not a bit of the chaos or clutter you might expect in a hectic, four-child domicile--even one that's 8,000 square feet.

In fact, the only sound you hear in the comfortable, sunny study where Jonathan writes his books is the buzz of a baby wasp as it bumps against windows that face a wide expanse of manicured lawn and an azure swimming pool beyond.

A dog's toy on the grass is the only visible sign of life.

Enter, Faye Kellerman. She is a delicate-boned woman with curly hair, no need for makeup, and a gauzy ankle-length dress that enhances her air of fragility.

Don't be deceived.

Her husband calls her "cut-to-the-chase-Faye," and "the 'Rawhide' of the family, who moves the herd on and gets 'em out."

Faye, true to her buildup, has decided to orchestrate this early April interview, a process that usually spans a few hours spread over two or three days.

"Impossible," she says firmly, citing the upcoming Jewish Sabbath (on which no work may be done), the upcoming holiday of Passover (same problem), the children's school projects, the need to get her next book on its way to the publisher, and the general press of her life as author and mother. Her days start at 6 a.m. when she prepares her four kids' school lunches, then their breakfasts, jogs for an hour with the guard dog, drives the baby to preschool, reads the papers, plans the evening meal (which she cooks herself according to kosher dietary laws) and then works on her current novel for two to four hours.

That's all before noon, mind you.

Afternoons are no less busy, she informs, reeling off a list of child-centered duties and housewifely obligations that would stagger a robot.

Because the Kellermans are Orthodox Jews, she says, she has only four weekdays to work on her books. And only a few hours on each because "afternoons and evenings are devoted to the kids. Then on Fridays, I cook the meals for Friday and Saturday nights."

(For those unfamiliar with Judaism, Orthodox adherents do not labor or drive on the Sabbath. So food preparation must be done beforehand, and the family walks to synagogue on Saturdays.)

For all those reasons and more, Faye smiles, "I think we ought to take care of this interview today in the time allotted."

No problem.

*

The Kellermans are self-described "workhorses" with a gift for gab, who just happen to have sold about 24 million copies of the 24 books they have written between them. (His 14 novels have sold 22 million so far, her 10 thrillers a more modest 2 million.)

"Our publishers love us because every one of our novels is still in print and selling briskly in backlist around the world," Jonathan says, pointing to a shelf of hardcover Kellerman editions in Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Japanese and Greek. "I'm still amazed by it all."

His first published novel, about child abuse and a double homicide ("When the Bough Breaks," 1985), won the Edgar Allen Poe Award and the Anthony Boucher Award, and was made into a television movie. John Gross in the New York Times called it "exceptionally exciting, written with skill and conviction." Newsweek's David Lehman called his second novel ("Blood Test," 1986) "a relentlessly intelligent thriller" that describes L.A.'s "atmosphere of nouveau depravity and trendy nuttiness vividly."

Faye's first book ("The Ritual Bath," 1986), about a brutal rape and murder in a religious bathhouse (called a mikvah), won faint praise from Los Angeles Times reviewer Elaine Kendall, who found it "sweetly romantic, universally appealing," and "an educational introduction to Judaism." Her main complaint: The love story was so compelling that it almost completely superseded the murder. Which is, it turns out, what Faye's loyal fans really love about her work.

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