Then Woody was gone. So were the Swopes, leaving their motel suite heavily bloodstained.
Enter Alex Delaware, child psychologist, young, burned out and semi-retire. he and his LA cop friend Milo find a heap of suspects – an aging ex-hippy doctor; a back-country police chief; a male stripper; even Nona, Woody’s sister, a flame-haired Lolita with hate in her eyes and larceny in her soul.
But the truth was more bizarre than even Alex could have imagined…
Blood Test is the second Alex Delaware book. It’s a far slimmer book than When the Bough Breaks, but the writing is more assured and the story certainly packs a punch. Set about a year after the events in the first book, Alex has recuperated from the broken jaw he sustained and has slowly started to get over the nightmares that haunted him in the aftermath of the events of When the Bough Breaks. He’s also been doing some consulting on the side, even though he’s officially still retired. And it is one of these consulting gigs that gets him involved in the main case of the book.
The central case in Blood Test is the Swopes case. It’s an intriguing one due to Woody and his family, but also due to the way we see Alex interact with his former colleagues, most notably child oncologist Raoul Melendez-Lynch and social worker Beverly Lucas. It sort of brought the hospital soap into the crime novel which was fun. While the sect called the Touch is interesting, they felt somewhat tacked on; for me the main interest were the Swopes family dynamics. Funnily enough, we never actually see the entire family together, we see them in different combinations, but never all four of them together. Yet despite this, we do get a clear sense of how the family functions, or rather malfunctions. Family dynamics are important in general in this book as we’re also shown the wrap up of Alex’s consulting on a divorce and custody case, where family dynamics mean that the kids essentially lose their dad until he cleans up his act. And there are several other characters in the narrative whose family’s dysfunctionality heavily influenced their own bad behaviour.
While the murder plot in Blood Test is interesting, upon a reread the overarching storylines become more interesting to trace. My biggest question for Blood Test was: where’s Robin?! I want more Robin. She’s essentially absent for much of the novel though her absence and the reason for her absence do play a big part in Alex’s development in Blood Test. I do have to say that Alex’s isn’t as sympathetic to me as he was in previous reads of this series. I found he annoyed me to no end at several points, mostly due to his somewhat patronising ideas about the women around him and the fact that he takes reckless decisions when he bloody well should know better. What I did love was how Milo called him on his bullshit as regards Robin’s being away in Japan to further her career. Alex is uneasy with this development, but Milo finely points out that Alex is only uneasy because this means she’ll be more independent from Alex. Milo takes no prisoners and I loved the honesty in his admission that he’s had to come to terms with the fact that his partner Rick is the main breadwinner in the relationship, just due to their different careers: cops will just never make the money doctors do. I found the reckless decisions he makes a little hard to swallow. For someone who is so smart, he shows remarkably bad common sense at times. He goes haring off on his own, following leads without telling Milo and sometimes even going against Milo’s advice. When he does so and then gets into trouble it feels somewhat like his own fault. I do hope he grows out of that.
What was surprising were the issues in the novel that twenty-nine years on are still relevant: immigration and drugs trafficking. When Alex drives south towards the Mexican border there is a point where he remarks on the stricter checks on the way up north due to illegal immigration and when he travels back north with Raoul, who is Cuban, they get stopped because of it. Of course the immigration debate is still current in California and has even worsened in the past decades. Just as the drugs trade has. It rather feels like the more things change, the more they stay the same. On the other hand, there was one passage where Milo talks about Rick and the difficulty he encounters in the ER when people don’t want to be treated by a gay doctor, because he might give them AIDS and conversely, Rick’s hesitancy in treating homosexual patients for fear they might be HIV-positive. I think – and I fervently hope that this isn’t just a sign of my straight privilege – that this is something that’s in the past now, as we’ve learned more about HIV and AIDS, not least that there are as many or more straight people who are HIV-positive as there are gay men who are HIV-positive. So at least that seems to have changed for the better.
Overall, Blood Test felt less dated than When the Bough Breaks did. Whether this is because it actually was so or whether this was due to the fact that I was used to the setting again, is hard to say, probably more the latter than the former, but certainly a bit of both. I enjoyed the case at the centre of Blood Test and I’m looking forward to see how Alex will develop in the next book called Over the Edge. My main hope for that one is that Alex will finally learn to think before he acts or at least to take risks more advisedly. We will see how that pans out.