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Kellerman, Faye

KELLERMAN, Faye

Born 1952, St. Louis, Missouri

Daughter of Oscar and Anne Steinberg Marder; married Jona-than Seth Kellerman, 1972; children: Jesse, Rachel, Ilana, Aliza

Faye Kellerman is best known for her mystery-detective series involving the recurring characters Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus. Decker, a Los Angeles Police Department detective, teams up, first professionally and then romantically, with a most unlikely crime-solving partner, Rina Lazarus, an orthodox Jewish woman whose introduction to the very secular world of crime occurs in Kellerman's first mystery novel in the series, The Ritual Bath (1986), which received a Macavity award for best first novel. Since the publication of The Ritual Bath, in which Rina Lazarus (at this point in the developing saga, a young widow with two children) assists the police in their investigation of a brutal rape that takes place at the mikvah (the women's ritual bathhouse) in the orthodox community in which she lives, Kellerman has published nine sequential mysteries involving Decker and Lazarus: Sacred and Profane (1987), Milk and Honey (1990), Day of Atonement (1991), False Prophet (1992), Grievous Sin (1993), Sanctuary (1994), Justice (1995), Prayer for the Dead (1996), and Serpent's Tooth (1997).

The narrative conceit and dramatic plots of Kellerman's detective novels alone are compelling evidence of her mastery of the mystery genre. Most of the action takes place in Los Angeles or the surrounding areas (although she does move out into New York and Israel for an occasional foray), and the situations she describes are timely. In fact, Kellerman captures the drama of American life in the latter part of the 20th century with a recognizable and often chilling intensity and accuracy. The impetus for the central action of each novel always stems from the American scene, from family dramas, to the moral vacuity and despair and desperate acts that both define and reflect American culture: domestic violence, women targeted by uncontrollable rage, children as victims of neglect and abuse, gang affiliation, drugs, gratuitous sex, an ever-growing wayward sense of hopelessness, unanchored lives, the pathologies of our age. The dialogue that unleashes the action in her novels is terse, uncompromised by the jargon that often impairs the movement of such typical crime scenarios that compete on the mystery-detective market.

Kellerman's plots are consistently realistic and at the same time unconventional. The unconventionality is created by a particular aspect of Kellerman's work that differentiates it from others in the mystery genre and gives her work its idiosyncratic appeal: while the central plot in all her work captures the drama of life on the streets of Los Angeles and the police investigation that brings it to its close, each novel works through a secondary plot, often a series of subplots involving the richly nuanced and complex life of the orthodox Jew attempting to maintain a life of traditional Jewish values and rituals in the midst of an increasingly secular world of contemporary America.

Kellerman's work deftly and engagingly introduces the practices, rituals, the very life of Orthodox Judaism into her fiction. And she does so framed within the evolving attraction, romance, and marriage of her two main characters, Peter and Rina. Peter, raised a Baptist by his adoptive parents, in the first novel of the series is held off initially by Rina, who is forbidden by her religious principles from a romantic involvement with someone outside the faith. The romantic tension is resolved when, in a subsequent novel, Peter discovers that his birth parents were Jewish, and so, by Jewish law, he too is Jewish. By the third novel in the series, Milk and Honey, Peter embraces Orthodox Judaism and officially converts. The two protagonists, in the novels that follow, go on to marry and have a child of their own.

While such a narrative conceit might otherwise seem contrived, the plot too easily resolved in favor of the religious lessons it purports, Kellerman handles the unfolding romantic "mystery" and her clear interest in maintaining and celebrating Jewish culture and traditional values unobtrusively and smoothly. Kellerman works into her novels a range of issues from interfaith marriages and religious adherence to what it means to keep kosher and study Talmud. Her novels themselves reflect the revisions that Judaism has seen in contemporary America, such as the changing roles of women in Judaism and the ever-increasing necessity for a balance between the constraints of the religious and the freedom of the secular worlds.

Kellerman achieves such a mingling of plots and subplots because her protagonists as well as the minor characters who reoccur throughout the series—such as the two Lazarus children, Decker's daughter from his first marriage, his partner in the LAPD, the rabbi who oversees their congregation, and others—are all so likable, all such complex and realistic characters. Kellerman's readers end up caring as much if not more about the fate of her characters as they do about the unfolding and resolution of the crime investigation. "Whodunit" competes in Kellerman's fiction with the developing psychologies and relationships among the characters who scrutinize and often stand at the margins of the typically gruesome crimes she describes—thus Kellerman broadens the genre of the mystery-detective novel.

Kellerman has written two other novels that depart from the Peter Decker-Rina Lazarus series: a historical romance, The Quality of Mercy (1988), set in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, and Moon Music (1998), a novel mixing mystery with fantasy. Kellerman is married to the psychologist-writer Jonathan Kellerman, also the author of a popular detective series featuring the psychologist-turned-sleuth, Alex Delaware.

Bibliography:

Reference works:

St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers (1996).

Other references:

ANR 60. Atlanta Journal-Constitution (7 July 1991, 13 Sept. 1992, 2 Nov. 1995, 29 Aug. 1996). Booklist (15 Apr. 1990, 15 June 1991, 15 June 1992, July 1993, Aug. 1995, July 1996). Judaism 46 (Winter 1997).

—VICTORIA AARONS

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