Four years ago, Jesse Kellerman famously entered the family business when he published his first novel, “Sunstroke.” His father is Jonathan Kellerman and his
mother is Faye Kellerman, both of whom are name-brand mystery novelists in their own rights.
His influences range from Stephen King to Richard Dawkins, an odd choice for someone who also reports that the Bible and the Talmud “have affected my life immeasurably.” He playfully denies that he is related to Sally Kellerman and refers anyone interested in his parents to their respective Web sites.
The most telling name on his list of favorites, I think, is Graham Greene, an accomplished literary artist who also wrote “entertainments” in the mystery genre. Kellerman’s new book, “The Executor” (Putnam, $25.95), offers something far richer and more reflective than we customarily find in the mystery-thriller genre. In a sense, Kellerman has written a thriller that is cast in the mold of a bildungsroman, or so it seems when we first open his remarkable new book.
The setup is understated but irresistible. A graduate student named Joseph Geist, who loses his teaching job and his grant, answers an intriguing advertisement: “Conversationalist wanted.” What better job for an out-of-work intellectual?
Even before we encounter his mysterious employer, however, we learn about the searing life experiences that turned Geist into the tortured young man whom we meet in the pages of Kellerman’s book. “My brother used to refer to me as ‘the Alien,’ and that pretty much summed up how everyone felt, including me,” muses Geist, whose voice we hear in the first-person narrative. Inspired by Nietzsche, he aspires to not only “reshape a 3,000-year-old debate” but also to “clear a path for philosophy going into the 21st century. Applause, please.” But, after eight fruitless years of work on his dissertation, Geist is ultimately expelled from Harvard University and reduced to answering want ads in the Crimson.
The woman who places the fateful ad is Alma Spielmann, who declares herself to be untroubled by his worries and woes. “I don’t mind that you are unhappy,” she says. “It shall make you more interesting to talk to.”
Slowly and exquisitely, Kellerman allows us to see the intrigue that swirls around the remarkable old lady who insinuates herself into his life, his destiny and even his erotic dreams. “Where was I?” muses Geist. “Who was this person? I looked at her, but she just smiled, Sphinx-like.”
Geist moves into a back bedroom of Alma’s house, and their conversations allow him to see the remarkable woman she is — Alma was on a first-name basis with Heidegger and Wittgenstein, she once rode from New York to San Francisco on a motorcycle, and she packs a pistol. Not long after the conversations begin, Geist comes to revere his benefactor. “These days, friendship is fungible; go on the Internet and you can collect 2,000 ‘friends,’ ” he muses. “That kind of friendship is meaningless, and I considered it blasphemous to apply the term to Alma.”
The idyll comes to an abrupt end when a young man named Eric shows up. He is introduced as Alma’s nephew, and he is clearly a source of grief and even danger for the old woman. “You would murder him for me, then?” Alma asks Geist, only half in jest. But he also notices “how Alma came alive in his presence, becoming, for a short while at least, positively coquettish.” And Geist discerns what he thinks is Eric’s real motive — “a masterpiece of dramatic subtext” — in a crucial conversation that charges the novel with a new kind of suspense. Suddenly, we pass from a parlor-room mystery into a noirish world of conspiracy that operates at the innermost reaches of the human heart and mind.
“I turned and fled into the bosom of the crowds, hounded by guilt, haunted by the awareness of my own power, the knowledge that I had the capacity to do evil, even if I chose not to exercise it,” Geist tells us. “And I felt guilty for feeling guilty, because I had no right to dismember myself for something I hadn’t done.”
The last 100 pages of “The Executor” are so full of new shocks and surprises, inversions and reversals, that I dare not even hint at them lest I subvert Kellerman’s expert mystery-making. Suffice it to say that nothing in the early pages of the book quite prepares the reader for how it ends. That’s exactly what the author intended, of course, and that’s why he is such a worthy heir to the famous family name. l
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and blogs at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.