Breakdown by Jonathan Kellerman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Child psychologist Alex Delaware is summoned to treat Zelda, a psychotic former actress whose child he once evaluated. She’s on a 5150 hold in a dubious facility and is soon released. Days later she is found dead on a palatial estate in Bel Air, poisoned from ingesting some toxic plant material. With his homicide lieutenant buddy Milo, Delaware goes about tracking down what happened to her and trying to find her missing son. The plot is classic police procedural, my favorite mystery genre, and the author has a knack for description. Put simply, he writes well. I enjoyed the book and recommend it. If you are looking for an idea of a book to read this summer, and you like police procedurals, then you can stop reading here and put this on your list. It’s a good one.
Now, if you’d like my take as an ex-FBI agent, lawyer, and crime novelist as to what wasn’t done quite right, keep reading. For starters, it was realistic, or at least plausible, for Alex to go from person A to person B to person C to gather leads. Pure procedural. But when it got to person Q or R, the serendipity became ludicrous. Everybody he talked to just happened to have one person to suggest who might have information, and all of them were alive, easy to find, and available and willing to talk. He also met every one in person, mostly over a meal. Have they no telephones in L.A.? What that really was was a lot of filler trying to turn a 120-page book into a 350-page book.
Now for the forensic part. The author really slipped here. I think he just got lazy. Take this quote where Alex has just looked up a location on Google Earth:
“In seconds I had full-color, one-year-old, 3-D satellite photos of the property at a variety of angles, the forest-like area … revealed in high definition.”
I use Google Earth constantly for my geocaching and a camera designer for Google involved in Google Earth used to be my next-door neighbor. It does not actually show satellite photos over L.A., although it does over many non-urban or forbidden areas like North Korea. Over L.A. and other U.S. cities they use low-flying airplanes. Okay, I forgive the use of the word satellite. But you can’t look at the area from different angles from that view. The pictures are all taken from directly overhead. Google has given the terrain a sort of 3-D look using clever algorithms and elevation data, but you’re still only going to see the same exact view no matter how you tilt the screen view. Think of it this way: imagine they printed the overhead view on a flat, flexible piece of paper and then pasted that paper over a 3-D model of the surface, complete with hills. That’s what is displayed. Despite the 3-D effect you only see the roofs of the houses. Of course if you use Street View, then you can see various angles at ground level because the Google photo car does have multiple cameras photographing from different angles, but that view wouldn’t show the plants in this scenario.
Next, Alex has a retired cop fly over the property in a helicopter and a plant biologist is able to identify several different species of ground-level shrubs from the infrared photos. This information is used to obtain a search warrant. There are several problems with this. First, IR photography identifies heat, and has very poor resolution. A biologist would not be able to identify various different species from IR signatures no matter how low the helicopter flew. Even if he also used standard photography, he’d have to practically land on the property to be close enough to identify these various species among a very tangled growth area, which would be a 4th Amendment violation and render the search warrant void. I rather doubt it could be done at all without taking a sample back to a lab. A low flight of that nature would also destroy the secrecy of the surveillance, which supposedly went undetected in the story.
There were several other legal hurdles that seem to have been magically vanished in the story, like how does Alex, a civilian, get access to crime scenes and all kinds of evidence only police can get (and even they often can’t), but I’m not going to go into further detail. These quibbles did not destroy the overall enjoyment of the story, although they diminish my rating from 5 stars to 4. This is the first book from any of the prolific Kellerman clan that I’ve read, although the library shelves are full of them. I expect to read more in the future.
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