Serpentine by Jonathan Kellerman

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Serpentine by Jonathan Kellerman

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Category: Crime
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: It looked like a case that would be impossible to solve because of its age and the lack of evidence and witnesses: it turns out to be complex and twisty as well as a superb read. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: February 2021
Publisher: Century
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780899053

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It wasn't exactly the case Lt Milo Sturgis had been dreaming about: a death from thirty-six years ago and the daughter of the woman who died wanted some answers. She had money and money translated into clout and so the problem was dropped onto Milo's toes. Dorothy Swoboda was twenty-four years old when she died in a car which went off a cliff on Mulholland Drive and burst into flames. It turned out that she wasn't actually married to the man with whom she'd left her daughter but Dr Stanley R Barker, optometrist, was a good man and he took out adoption papers for Ellie - and she took his name. Ellie was three when her mother left her with Dr Barker and she has nothing of her but one photograph of her mother and father and a necklace made of serpentine.

It seemed like an impossible case: thirty-nine-year-old Ellie Barker has no clues to offer and Dorothy Swoboda's life is impossible to track down. Her death had been written off as an accident: the fact that she'd been shot before the car went off the cliff seemed not to have impacted. Worst of all, there's no file and the detectives who investigated the case have, with one exception, died. The only remaining detective is Du Galloway, who's keen to help. He put his failure to get anywhere with the case down to the attitude of his superior officer. It seemed that someone might have wanted this case buried.

This is the thirty-sixth outing for LA psychologist Dr Alex Delaware but don't be worried about getting to the party late: Serpentine would read perfectly well as a stand-alone and whilst there is a progression to the stories I wouldn't go as far as to say that there's an over-arching narrative. Delaware is still married to Robin and Milo Sturgis is still with his partner who's a doctor. The book is only incidentally about Alex and Milo: they're there to solve the case, not to star in the book.

As always the characterisation is brilliant: self-made millionaires don't often come like Ellie Barker but a disturbed childhood can leave even the most well-adjusted people with a sense of guilt and of worthlessness. You want her to get some closure about her mother's fate but you wonder if she's setting herself up to fail. Milo Sturgis's solve rate is near perfect but even he is going to struggle to come up with anything when the case is decades old and there are no witnesses and no evidence. But by teasing little bits of information here and there he begins to get a grip on the case. And what a case it is.

I've read earlier books in the Alex Delaware series but never before appreciated quite what a brilliant picture you get of the city of Los Angeles. Thanks to Google maps I could follow a lot of the activity: somehow it made everything more real. Did I guess how everything worked out: I was nowhere near and I was still being surprised a few pages before the end. It was an exceptionally-good read and I'd like to thank the publishers for letting Bookbag have a review copy.

For more Los Angeles we can recommend:

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
The Lost Witness by Robert Ellis
Foreign Body by Robin Cook

Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware Series in Chronological Order

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