Sat
Aug 5 2017 3:00pm

Review: Crime Scene by Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman

A former star athlete turned deputy coroner is drawn into a brutal, complicated murder in Crime Scene, a psychological thriller by father/son writing duo Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman.

When Deputy Coroner (and former basketball star) Clay Edison heads out to a Berkeley death scene, he figures it's a routine call. Seventy-five-year-old Walter Rennert has fallen down the stairs of his beautiful home. 

The foyer was a double-high oval, open at the long ends to a dining room and a den. Expansive but spare: the furniture consisted of a single high-backed chair and a console table with a tray, over which an oxidized mirror hung askew. At the back, a staircase curved up toward a spidery iron chandelier.

No rug to cushion the impact of flesh on tile.

No sign of disturbance, just the body, facedown.

I could imagine Tatiana’s shock.

I smelled coffee.

Walter Renner was dressed in a navy-blue bathrobe, fraying at the hem. His feet were bare. Medium height. High side of average, weight-wise. His left arm was curled beneath his torso. His right elbow crooked skyward, as though he’d tried to slow his descent. I’d seen plenty of other bodies similarly positioned, which made it hard not to jump to an immediate conclusion.

It looks like an accident, and there’s no reason to believe that he was murdered. Rennert was being treated for hypertension, but Edison also finds a bottle of Risperdal, a drug prescribed as an antipsychotic. Still, Rennert was 75 years old, and although he seemed to have been in fairly good health, falls aren’t uncommon. Edison is certainly hesitant to make any judgments before an autopsy is done. 

Rennert’s daughter Tatiana is another story. She’s convinced that her father’s death is connected to a previous one. 

I said, “Let’s talk about what you said, about him being pushed. What makes you think that?”

“Because it’s happened before,” she said.

I looked up from writing. “What has.”

“This.”

“Okay,” I said.

“See? You don’t believe me.”

“Can we back up, please? Something happened to your father—”

“Not him,” she said. “His student.”

“Student…?”

“Grad student. Here. At Cal.”

“Name?” I asked

“Nicholas Linstad. He and my dad ran a study together. One of their subjects ended up going out and murdering a girl. At the trial my father testified against him. They both did.”

“When was this?”

“Early nineties. I was six, I think. Ninety-one or ninety-two.”

“All right. Your father and his student testify against and individual. What’s his name?”

“They never released it. He was a minor. Disturbed. The whole thing was awful.”

“I’m sure.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “My father—it ruined him. Then they go and let this homicidal maniac out of prison. He’s walking the streets, my father helped convict him. You’d think somebody would warn us. It’s completely irresponsible. A month later, Nicholas falls down a flight of stairs and dies.”

“He fell?”

“He was pushed,” she said.

Definitely suspicious—but for Edison, it still doesn’t mean that Rennert was murdered. Nevertheless, something about Tatiana’s convictions is compelling. When the autopsy comes in and Rennert’s death is determined to be the result of a ruptured aorta, it seems pretty cut and dry. However, Edison still finds that he’s entertaining other ideas, in no small part because of his undeniable attraction to Tatiana, which he knows isn’t a good idea. He’s prepared to write the report and be done with it until he gets a call from Rennert’s MD that seems to enforce Edison’s suspicion that the death was a natural one. So he places a call to the doctor that prescribed the Risperdal, Dr. Louis Vannen.

The problem is, he can’t get a hold of Vannen, so he manages to corner him in the parking lot of his office. Vannen flatly refuses that Rennert was his patient, which of course gives Edison pause. Why would Vannert lie when there’s no reason to? Unless there is.

It also doesn’t help matters that Edison is getting closer to Tatiana. After he visits her with the sole intent of returning property, they talk, and there’s definitely a spark between them, which is not conducive to the kind of impartiality that Edison needs to do his job. But then he finds out about the murder that threw Rennert’s life into such disarray on Halloween night in 1993.

Donna Zhao, twenty-three years old, a Berkeley undergrad, had been found stabbed to death in her apartment, half a mile south of campus.

Tatiana had gotten the year wrong, but not by much. She’d been a child; her knowledge of the case had been acquired after the fact.

One thing she’d gotten right: the offender’s name was never released.

Digging further, more details emerge about Rennert’s research and what it had to do with this brutal murder.

Rennert, it emerged, had built a career examining the effects of media violence on the developing brain. The theory appeared to be that exposing kids to graphic imagery harmed them in all sorts of ways: lessoning their empathy, hindering their academic performance, and—his central theme—priming them to commit real-world violence. Perusing his abstracts on PubMed, I gathered he did stuff like show teenagers clips from slasher films while measuring their heart rates.

The idea that Rennert’s research could have led to a real murder is a terrifying one, but did it result in Rennert being murdered? Things really ramp up when Edison spots a man spying on Rennert’s house but loses him when he attempts to pursue. This is when Edison starts his hunt in earnest, enlisting the help of Homicide, and the transcripts from the murder interviews are fascinating. More and more questions arise, and Kellerman’s popular protagonist, child psychologist Alex Delaware, even makes an appearance.

As the story unfolds, we also learn more about Edison and the professional basketball career that almost was until a catastrophic injury to his knee ended it abruptly. Edison is an empathetic investigator, and Kellerman demonstrates this in small ways with small kindnesses that can be easily overlooked but that may make all the difference to someone—especially if they’re dealing with the death of a loved one. I also liked that Edison doesn’t immediately take things at face value and is always willing to ask questions and dig deeper, even in the face of the possibility of Donna Zhao’s killer coming back for revenge, no matter what Tatiana and others think.

This is my first Kellerman, shockingly—although I do have a shelf full of Jesse Kellerman’s books and a few of Jonathan’s as well—and they make quite a writing duo. Edison is a great protagonist who narrates with an eye for detail and has more than enough sensitivity required for his undeniably sensitive job. The Kellermans also hand him a suitably complex mystery to investigate, and he does it with aplomb. This is a great series starter, and I’ll very much look forward to the next installment!

 

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Kristin Centorcelli reviews books at mybookishways.com, loves a good mystery, and is a huge fan of boxed wine. You can also follow her at @mybookishways.

Read all posts by Kristin Centorcelli for Criminal Element.

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1 comment
MaryC
1. maryc
Just finished the book last night - loved it!
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