Tag Archives: California

“The Murderer’s Daughter,” by Jonathan Kellerman

  • Ballantine. 384 pages. Hardcover  $28.00

This taut new thriller features a memorable, series-worthy heroine.

When it comes to psychological thrillers, Jonathan Kellerman has been at the top of the heap for three decades. His Alex Delaware series is an institution. In this truly frightening stand-alone effort (though Delaware is briefly mentioned), Kellerman introduces a character who could conceivably head a new series.

Gorgeous Dr. Grace Blades, a brainy 34-year-old, has a private practice as a psychologist who aids victims of trauma. However, she is a victim of childhood trauma with the capacity to wreak havoc on others. Her sense of justice is very personal.

We first meet Grace at the age of 5, the neglected child of an unmarried pair of slackers, Ardis and Dodie, who hold menial restaurant jobs and barely exist in a cruddy trailer park. Grace learns to take care of herself and teaches herself how to read. She’s a prodigy in a cultural wasteland.  43626.jpg (200×226)

After this brief introduction, the author takes us almost 30 years ahead, providing several chapters on the successful Dr. Blades. They reveal her skilled and caring professionalism, her ethical business practices, and her quiet confidence.

We also discover the risk-taker part of Grace that vies with her control-freak dimension. Self-control and self-stimulation alternate like a perilous seesaw trying to reach a point of balance.

Structurally, the narration involves two alternating timelines. One focuses on a short period of present time in the life of Grace the psychotherapist and thrill-seeker. The other takes us through several stages of her development, usually marked by a change in the institution or foster home where she resides.

Eventually, of course, the timelines meet. Along the way, Kellerman provides a detailed exploration of how children in such circumstances are likely to be treated and what the consequences might be. More importantly, he builds our understanding of how Grace in her mid-30s is a product of the nurturing — or lack of it — she received during her development. She is also a product of her own willpower and self-creation.

Part of Grace’s preparation for life is watching her parents wage bloody war upon each other. Her mother, Dodie, stabs her tormenter, Ardis, her father, who dies. Then Dodie plunges the knife into herself, first instructing Grace to remember what she sees.

She will.

Grown-up Grace enjoys exercising power, particularly sexual power, over men. She lives a secret nightlife of trysts in which she is the controlling temptress. On the occasion that drives the main plot, Grace rehearses some lies, dresses to kill (pardon me), and goes to a bar expecting to entice a partner for the evening. A man calling himself Roger takes the bait. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Murderer’s Daughter | Washington Independent Review of Books

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There are no secrets like grave secrets

“Secrets to the Grave,” by Tami Hoag. Dutton. 450 pages. $26.95.

In her latest thriller, New York Times best-selling novelist Tami Hoag presents a complex, multi-faceted study in criminal detection, psychological aberration, trauma recovery, and small town power dynamics. Set in fictional Oak Knoll, an upscale community north of Los Angeles, “Secrets to the Grave” continues the setting and principal characters introduced in Ms. Hoag’s recent “Deeper Than the Dead.” Even while local law enforcement officers remain occupied with a serial killer investigation, a new and gruesome murder demands their attention. 

A young single mother and rising artist, Marissa Fordham, is found dead in her home, her breasts amputated and missing. The attractive woman’s daughter, four year old Hayley, is the terrified witness – but one who has blocked out the traumatic experience. Near-victim Anne Navarre, the main witness in the ongoing trial against the serial killer whose crimes are detailed in “Deeper Than the Dead,” takes on the unofficial role of temporary custodian for Hayley. Anne is a local school teacher, trained child advocate, and new wife of Vince Leone, a retired FBI agent who consults for the county sheriff’s department and is a central figure in the new case.

The investigation pursues the answers to a series of questions. Why is there no record of Marissa’s life before she showed up in Oak Knoll about four years back? Who is Hayley’s father? Who would have the motive and opportunity to perform such a brutal murder? How did Marissa gain the patronage of the powerful socialite and self-styled art connoisseur Milo Bourdain? What is the meaning of Marissa’s breasts being mailed to Milo, whose wealthy husband Bruce is a reputed philanderer?

Tami Hoag, photo by Jan Cobb

Sheriff’s detective Tony Mendez becomes the primary investigator, assisted and mentored by Vince Leone, partnered with Bill Hicks, and under the supervision of the county sheriff, Cal Dixon. Each of these professionals, and several others, is neatly characterized and differentiated.

Suspects include primarily the Oak Knoll men who have had some kind of relationship with Marissa – men she had dated or been seen with. These include Steve Morgan, the wife of Marissa’s friend Sara. Morgan, who had been connected to the victims in the See-No-Evil serial killer case, was a friend of Peter Crane, the man on trial. They also include Milo Bourdain’s son Darren; McCaster College music department head Mark Foster; and weird mathematics genius Alexander Zahn, a friendly neighbor who frequently visits Marissa but whose strange behavior makes many townspeople uneasy.

One person is likely to have information that will move the investigation forward – Marissa’s best friend, Gina  Kemmer. When Gina is suddenly found to be missing just before she’s to be interviewed, the investigation is handicapped and a second one begins. If Gina knows what Marissa Fordham knew, then she’s likely to become a victim of the same killer.

To read this review in its entirety, as it appeared in the Fort Myers (January 26, 2011) and Naples (January 27) editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Tami Hoag pdf. The piece appeared later in the March 24 issue of the Palm Beach Gardens Florida Weekly.

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The Jewish Immigrant Who Helped Build California

This review made its first appearance in the June 2010 issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County) Federation Star.

Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, by Frances Dinkelspiel . St. Martin’s Griffin. 376 pages. $16.99 (pprbk)

In the middle of the 19th century, the German confederation of 36 independent states was in chaos. Many hundreds of thousands fled Bavaria and neighboring entities. Among those seeking new lives were members of the sizeable Jewish community, whose rights had been seriously curtailed. In a 30-year period, 20,000 Bavarian Jews migrated to other parts of Europe and to the United States. Isaias Hellmann (hereafter Hellman) and his brother Herman were teenagers when they made their way to California, following the lure – along with thousands of other adventurers – of the Gold Rush.   

In 1859, the brothers arrived in Los Angeles, then a small frontier town dwarfed in importance by the burgeoning city that San Francisco had become. In 1865, Isaias Hellman bought his own store, a general purpose dry goods establishment that benefitted from Hellman’s networking with other Jewish merchants already flourishing in California.

Steadily, Hellman’s business grew, as did his wealth and reputation. In 1868, he opened the second official bank in Los Angeles – Hellman, Temple & Company. Soon after, Hellman was involved not only in making loans but in land development and in planning how to “market the idea of southern California.” By the time he was 28, Isaias Hellman had achieved a net worth equal to 1 million dollars today.

These are only the first steps in the carefully researched biography prepared by Frances Dinkelspiel, Hellman’s great-great granddaughter and an award-winning journalist, who was astounded when, in 1999, she came upon the enormous collection of Hellman material at the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco. She had known from bits and pieces of family stories that the Hellmans had been an important family, but now she discovered that Isaias was a catalytic force in the making of California – a visionary builder, financier and power broker who went far beyond his youthful banking experience in Los Angeles to build three major western financial institutions: the Farmers and Merchants Bank (in Los Angeles), the Nevada Bank (in San Francisco) and the eventually continental banking giant Wells Fargo. Isaias was also a leader in several other key industries outside of banking.

Dinkelspiel’s narration is thoroughly engaging and largely convincing. Though it would be hard to exaggerate her forebear’s importance, she probably does. Still, Isaias Hellman’s place at the center of California’s transition from a frontier society to a modern, forward-looking state is undeniable. The author traces that slice of California history with style and assurance.

 Hellman kept in touch with his Jewish roots and identity. He was instrumental in the founding of several important Jewish synagogues. He generously supported other Jewish institutions, including the (then) newly formed American Jewish Committee when, during the pre-WWI pogroms in Russia, the organization sought assistance for Russian Jews.

When Isaias Hellman died in 1920 at the age of 77, the Pacific Coast that had given him opportunity lost a powerhouse who had transformed it. He left a fortune that would be reckoned at 2 billion or more today. But that’s only a drop in the ocean of what he helped to build.

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