That the name Jesse Kellerman should suddenly appear on mystery bookshelves seems unsurprising if not preordained. As the sole son and eldest of four children of best-selling novelists Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, 27-year-old Jesse has the pedigree, the academic credentials (B.S. from Harvard, M.F.A. from Brandeis) and the winning combination of self-confidence and self-deprecating humor not only to create memorable fiction in his own right, but also to handle with ease the lofty expectations that come from being one of "those" Kellermans.
"I've been fielding that question since I was five," he chuckles by phone from the Manhattan home he shares with wife Gabriella, a third-year medical student at Mount Sinai Hospital. "It's going to take some time for me to establish who I am. This is something I realized a long, long time ago as unavoidable. I can either accept that this is my birthright or not, but to not accept it is kind of raging against the dying of the light."
Jesse's mystery debut, Sunstroke, is a quirky noir tale in the Jim Thompson tradition about Gloria Mendez, a middle-aged Los Angeles secretary who has grown dependent over the years on her secret unrequited love for her older boss, Carl, a congenial if clueless toy importer. When Carl fails to return from one of his usual Mexican vacations (authorities claim he died in a fiery car crash), Gloria reluctantly heads south to retrieve his body. In the process, she encounters a handsome young Mexican claiming to be Carl's son who offers a dramatically different version of her boss' life. The more she learns about his secret past, the less she trusts Carl, his son or the official version of his death.
While Kellerman adheres to most noir conventions, his kinetic narrative voice separates Sunstroke from the pack. His omniscient storyteller is a sardonic, wisecracking mischief-maker whose droll asides lend real snap and menace to the proceedings, giving the book a playfulness similar to The Usual Suspects or Pulp Fiction.
"To me, drama without comedy is just dead and soulless, and comedy without any sense of gravitas is just idiotic," he says. "So when I'm writing more serious stuff, the way I avoid melodrama is by making sure that my sense of humor comes through."
One might expect the natural heir to the Kellerman franchise to be an avid mystery fan, right? Not quite. Though he admires a handful of mystery writers ("My parents, Elmore Leonard, Ruth Rendell, Jim Thompson"), he rarely reads crime fiction. Instead, Jesse aspires to become that rarest of rare birds, a popular literary writer in the vein of his top five: Vladimir Nabokov, David Mamet, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and John Fowles. In fact, writing crime fiction was not Plan A or even Plan B. He entered Harvard as a film and photography major, then switched to psychology, his father's discipline, to broaden his experience.
"It's very important to know other things besides what you write about, otherwise you don't have anything to say," he says. "We're living in a solipsistic age, an age of specialization, and making an effort to learn things outside yourself is fast disappearing. It's hard to get people to listen to and think about things that are not in their immediate environment. That's scary, to me anyway. The great thing about psychology is that it has something to say about everything, especially the arts. You learn a little bit of everything in that field."
His sophomore year, he waded into playwriting. Although Harvard does not have a theater department per se, its affiliation with the American Repertory Theater proved fruitful; Kellerman won the 2003 Princess Grace Award as the country's most promising playwright and had his plays produced throughout the United States and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Unfortunately, he also discovered a limitation of the stage: "You can't make a career in it. It's really sad to say but nobody makes a living as a playwright," he says.
Novels seemed like a natural next step. After attempting a grand historical novel set 100 years ago in his native Los Angeles (short version: 21 encouraging rejections), Jesse decided to flesh out a true story that his mother-in-law once told him from her days as a lawyer in the Bay Area.
"The message that gets hammered over and over into budding playwrights is structure and story construction and how to unfold things sequentially. That's actually why I decided to do this as a crime novel, because crime novels have a built-in beginning and end, mystery and solution. It was for the sake of keeping me on track," he says. Whether Jesse will develop a mystery series similar to his mother's 15-book Pete Decker/Rina Lazarus series or his father's 19-book Alex Delaware series remains to be seen.
"I'm really resistant to attempts to categorize myself," he says. "I find so many kinds of books interesting, and for that reason, at age 27, I'm not willing to say, here's what I'm going to do for 50 years. Doesn't the average American change careers like 12 times or something over their life? This is the great century of indecision, and I at least reserve the right to change genres a couple times. I fully intend to explore other arenas, much to the consternation of everybody in publishing. The writers that I admire tend to be the people who defy categorization."
Whatever course his muse may take him, Jesse is certain that family revelry, not rivalry, will follow.
"I feel like what's going to happen—and I'm prepared for it—is that there will inevitably be comparisons either in one direction or another: in genetic degradation, Kellerman fails to live up to his parents, or, as I'm sure my parents are waiting to hear, Kellerman surpasses his parents! We're just laughing about it. They're certainly not threatened by me. And if I were threatened by them, I would have been a lawyer."
Jay MacDonald writes from Oxford, Mississippi.