Seven-year-old Melody Quinn is the only witness of a horrific double murder but she can’t or won’t talk about what she saw. Child psychologist Alex Delaware is brought in to try and get through to her and to the truth of what happened that night. But it soon becomes clear that Melody isn’t just traumatised by the murders.
Alex is only too aware that LA is a city which spawns ugliness. But is he prepared for the seemingly bottomless pit of perversion and violence that he’s about to uncover?
The first time I read Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks I was probably around fifteen and the last time somewhere around twenty-five. In between I’d reread the series – up to the point it was published at time of reread – several times, but from then till now it has been about a decade. So all in all the timing of this reread seems to be serendipitous to say the least, as I’m now thirty-five. As it’s a reread I’ll be focusing on the experience of rereading the book in addition to the usual review elements such as plot and characters.
The mystery Alex and Milo investigate is one that is wider-reaching than it seems at first and the twists incorporated into the plot and the eventual nature of the crimes exposed are shocking. It’s hard to talk about it more in depth than this, because it might be straying into spoiler territory, but I think I reacted more strongly to it now than I did previously and was far more disturbed by it. I did like the construction of the investigation which is partly Milo doing police legwork, Alex doing his own bit, and them going out together and also talking things out between them. These last parts were maybe my favourite as their dynamic is great.
When the Bough Breaks is also clearly a set up for a series with huge chunks of character building for both Alex and Milo. We get lots of their background and history and what brought them to the point in time where we meet them. This is far less true for Robin, Alex’s girlfriend, which surprised me as I remember her as far more fleshed out, though this will probably take place in later books instead. Kellerman also includes some interesting setups for later character dynamics, which made me ponder how much of that he’d already planned out at this point and how much of the later relationships grew organically through the telling.
On paper Alex looks like your blue-eyed, all-American success story, who capped it off by retiring at thirty-two. Yet he’s definitely not a glorious hero; he has his less shiny side. He does and says things that don’t reflect that well on him. There was one bit in particular where he meets a woman on the wrong side of thirty who is rather homely and he makes no bones about expressing this to the reader. This irked me rather a lot and then he just outright pissed me off. Because Alex goes on to express the the following:
She brought forth a tray of cheese and crackers, looking uncomfortable in the role of hostess. I wondered why she’d gravitated toward p.r. Library science would have seemed more fitting. Then the thought occurred to me that public relations at Jedson was probably akin to library work, a desk job involving lots of clipping and mailing and very little face-to-face contact. (p. 262)
And that just made me go “Excuse me?!” Because apart from the rampant sexism in the paragraphs before the one above, this description of what library work is/was is just all kinds of wrong. It hit a (professional) nerve, because obviously some types of documentalists might have this sort of job, especially thirty years ago, but many library technicians and librarians do nothing but interact with people. Then again, ten years ago I wasn’t a librarian and I didn’t have this reaction, so I guess it is all about context. At the same time, even if it made me flinch, I loved the honesty in his reaction to Milo coming out to him. He’s not afraid to voice his prejudices to himself, while also determining to do better and to be a good friend to Milo.
The Milo we meet in When the Bough Breaks is far gruffer and rougher than I remember as well. He also does some things that rather shocked me when I read them this time around. Whether that is because he’s grown rosy in my recollection, because he changed over the series and thus it feels out-of-character, or because I have changed and thus my reactions as well, is of course the unanswerable question, but it is probably a mix of all three. Still, Milo is a bundle of contradictions rolled into one ill-fitting suit and he’s one of my favourite things about the Delaware series. His characterisation is wonderful and the fact that he is a gay homicide detective in the LAPD in the mid-eighties and that he’s actually out to his colleagues and bosses was not a usual thing to find in books written at the time.
What struck me most though, is how dated the novel feels. Not in a bad way, mind you, but in the sense that it was fun to see how very different life was thirty-odd years ago, even if it doesn’t feel that long ago. Alex and Milo have to stop at gas stations or diners to use the pay phones to call the precinct and when they need a number for someone they call information. And there is also a bit of zeitgeist in the language. Women’s behinds are called fanny—which to a British English speaker is rather rude! Milo and Alex call each other pal, where today it would probably be something like dude or bro. Of course, there is also the less pleasant part of being dated, in the sense that feminism had quite a way to go yet in Alex’s world.
When the Bough Breaks isn’t just the first in the Alex Delaware series, it is also Kellerman’s first novel and it’s clear that Kellerman is still finding his feet as an author and with his characters. It was weird meeting them “for the first time” when I actually know them far better, already having read seventeen books into the series. Then again, I hadn’t read the book in over a decade and there were details I’d forgotten completely. Overall, while there were definitely some problematic things in the narrative, it was good to go back to the beginning and I enjoyed meeting Alex, Milo, Robin and company again.