John B. Valeri

Kellerman tests one of crime fiction's oldest friendships in the 39th outing for Dr. Delaware and Detective Sturgis

Jonathan Kellerman, like his enduring protagonist, Dr. Alex Delaware, is a man of two worlds. A clinical psychologist, he also solves crimes through his keen analysis of human behavior—albeit vicariously. Delaware, also a child psychologist, often assists the LAPD in their investigative work and has now headlined 39 books in as many years in what has become America’s longest running crime series. It’s proved a fruitful pairing between creator and character. Kellerman’s books—now numbering 50, including collaborations with his wife, Faye Kellerman, son, Jesse Kellerman, children’s stories, and nonfiction—have sold more than 90 million copies worldwide and garnered accolades including the Anthony, Edgar, and Goldwyn awards; further, Kellerman is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association.

If the author’s newest is any indication, neither he nor Delaware have any intentions of stopping—or even slowing down. In The Ghost Orchid (Ballantine Books, 2024), Delaware—still recovering from a near-fatal encounter while working a case—is summoned to a poolside crime scene in Bel Air by homicide detective and close personal friend Milo Sturgis (acknowledged as the mainstream mystery fiction’s first openly gay police office at the series’ inception). There, he finds two dead bodies, both shot through the heart at close range. And while nothing initially jumps out as unusual enough to warrant his involvement, the ensuing investigation reveals that each victim has a past that could have been prologue to murder. As their killer remains at large, Delaware and Sturgis endeavor to identify the true target in the hopes that doing so will lead them to the perpetrator before he or she can strike again.

Now, Jonathan Kellerman discusses The Ghost Orchid and the ways in which melding psychology with police procedure has kept things fresh throughout four decades of popular and prolific output.

John B. Valeri for Mystery Scene: The Ghost Orchid finds your longtime protagonist, Dr. Alex Delaware, recovering from a near-fatal encounter. What is the impact of such a trauma, not only on Alex but his intimates—and how does this set the stage for what’s to come?

Jonathan Kellerman: The impact of trauma varies from person to person. PTSD has received a lot of attention but the truth is, most people don’t experience it. Often it depends upon the availability of quick emotional support and Alex benefits from the support he receives from Robin as well as from his own robust constitution. Milo is experiencing a whole different side-effect: guilt. Because it was police work that nearly killed his best friend. This creates… shall we say a bit of tension between them? And that informs The Ghost Orchid.

Det. Milo Sturgis (reluctantly) invites Alex to consult on a double-homicide case in which the question isn’t simply one of whodunit, but of which victim was the intended target. Tell us about the significance of this double mystery and why knowing the killer’s intent is critical for identification purposes.

Any homicide detective will tell you that learning about the victim is one of the most important factors in closing a homicide. The challenge, here, is that we have two victims to learn about and no idea if both of them or one of them was the primary target. If the latter, which one? I like to make things difficult for Alex and Milo.

Alex and Milo’s partnership allows for a two-pronged approach to crime-solving: psychological and procedural. How do these aspects play off one another—and what does their working relationship illustrate about the importance of open-mindedness and the pooling of resources?

The Delaware novels comprise, to my knowledge, the longest-running crime series in American, possibly worldwide, history. I believe that the unique relationship between Alex and Milo is a major reason for that. It goes beyond the pooling of resources. There’s a deep friendship as well as trust that has been earned over scores of successful collaborations.

Alex and his romantic partner, Robin, are both obsessive about their work, albeit to different ends. How has this influenced the course of their relationship?

I think apathetic characters lead to boring stories so I’ve always oriented myself toward driven, even borderline obsessive protagonists. Is any of that autobiographical?

In addition to the murder investigation, Alex is asked to advocate for a teenage adoptee whose indifferent parents are divorcing. Without moving into spoiler territory, how do these two separate cases underscore the book’s theme(s)—and what is your approach to balancing Alex’s two worlds so that each is done justice within the narrative?

You’re one 100% correct. I aim to show the two worlds inhabited by Alex in order to illuminate him as a person. I write crime novels so obviously his criminal investigation needs to be the main focus. But he is a psychologist and I’d like to show how psychologists actually function, having been one for many years. One of my reasons, decades ago, for creating the first Delaware novel was to (finally) portray the world of psychology in a realistic manner. Back then, that was absent in books, movies, and TV. Alas, for the most part, it still is.

This is your 39th Alex Delaware book in as many years (quite the accomplishment—kudos!). What compels you to return to these characters—and how has the passage of time allowed you to keep things fresh?

Keeping it fresh is easy for me because I love my job and I love writing the Delaware novels. They allow me to tell the stories that appeal to me. Namely those that explore the whydunit in addition to the whodunit. My motto is similar to that of Santana: We ignore the past at our own peril.

Throughout your career you’ve had the privilege of cowriting books not only with your wife, the esteemed Faye Kellerman, but more recently your son, Jesse Kellerman. What appeals to you about the collaborative process—and how have you found working with them to influence your own individual storytelling?

I’ve enjoyed both immensely because Faye and Jesse are immensely talented. It’s like playing in a band: no fun unless your fellow musicians have chops. I don’t believe it’s affected my individual style because collaboration requires a whole new mindset: compromise and sharing. Very different experience from sitting in a room by yourself and typing away.

Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?

Two subsequent Delaware novels are complete and I’m working on another. During Covid, I used isolation to stay extremely busy. I also want to thank you and to thank my wonderful readers who’ve allowed me to work the best job in the world.

John B ValeriJohn B. Valeri is a lifelong lover of books and the people who write them and the host of Central Booking, where he interviews authors and other industry insiders. Valeri is a contributor to CrimeReads, Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Element, Mystery Scene MagazineThe National Book Review, The New York Journal of BooksThe News and TimesThe Strand Magazine, and Suspense Magazine. He regularly moderates author events and book discussions at bookstores and libraries throughout Connecticut, and serves on the planning committee for CrimeCONN, a one-day reader/writer mystery conference cosponsored by Mystery Writers of America/New York Chapter.