A Journalist's Archive

The Burnt House
Fay Kellerman
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          "The Burnt House" is the sixteenth Fay Kellerman mystery featuring Detective Peter Decker and his wife Rina Lazarus.  Many other mystery writers employ the same technique, creating main characters readers grow to love; thus developing a loyal fan base that can result in record book sales. 

          Publishers worship authors who can write serial novels.  But writers know producing books on demand can sometimes affect the quality of their writing.  While this is my first Kellerman mystery, I hope this is an example of one of her less significant novels.

          Kellerman's latest mystery starts off with an interesting plot.  A commuter plane carrying forty-seven passengers crashes into an apartment complex in Los Angeles.  Fears of a terrorist attack are quickly quashed, but Lieutenant Peter Decker faces two unsolved crimes as a result of the accident.  First, the name of a flight attendant, Roseanne Dresden, is added to the list of dead a day after the crash, but there is little evidence she even boarded the flight.  In fact, her step-father keeps calling Decker, insisting Roseanne was never on the flight, and claiming her husband is the person responsible for her disappearance.  Second, while searching for Dresden's remains, rescue workers find the body of a woman missing for at least three decades in the basement of the charred apartment building.  Her remains are so fragile that detectives must use special MRI imaging techniques to determine her identity. 

          The plot looked so interesting on the book jacket that I thought this mystery should be a great read.  Unfortunately, something about Kellerman's writing style made me think I was reading a made-for-TV movie script.  Consequently, I kept taking commercial breaks. Good mystery books can keep me up until the wee hours of the morning, even as my eyelids are crying out for sleep.  But in spite of the great plot, "The Burnt House" was actually a chore to read.  I kept wondering; what am I missing?  Are Kellerman's other mysteries better than "The Burnt House," and if not, how can anyone become so successful by writing like this?

            Besides the plot, the story line is set in some interesting locations, including San Jose and Santa Fe.  Writers are told the more people can identify with locations in a story, the more apt they are to like the story.  However, Kellerman dragged readers from one spot to another but was never able to capture the essence of either place.

          The real test of strength for any book in a series comes from first-time buyers.  Main characters in the series should be well-developed, with interesting personalities and special little quirks that will make readers want to follow them through years of mystery solving.  Excellent examples of characters who captivate a reader's interest are Hercule Poirot, the finicky little Belgian detective in Agatha Christie's novels, or Kinsey Millhone, the detective in Sue Grafton's alphabet mystery series.

          Unfortunately, Kellerman's main characters are pale in comparison. I found Detective Peter Decker to be nothing more than a dull middle-aged detective.  Nothing about his character sparked my interest.  Rina Lazarus, Kellerman's other leading character, played a bit part in this novel, which can only be described as the role of a supporting wife.  BORING!

          Kellerman does give readers some insights into Judaism, when Lazarus discusses spiritual issues with Decker.  But this too appears to be contrived, because most couples who have been married over twenty years would be well aware of their partner's religious beliefs.

           The final blow came when the clue needed to solve the second mystery was as obvious as the proverbial sore thumb.   Nothing is more disappointing than a mystery that can be solved without any complex thinking.

          New Falcon Herald readers have a unique opportunity.  You get to critique the reviewer.  So, if you are a big-time Kellerman fan and think I don't know what I'm talking about, please feel free to enlighten me.  Let me know what I'm missing.  Direct me to what you think is Kellerman's best work, because right now the only mystery I'm interested in solving is what makes readers continue to read Kellerman's mysteries.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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