The call came in. A dead body lay in a Union City hotel room. Female. Overdose. Accidental.
Jesse Kellerman had been waiting for that call. For the previous few days, the Berkeley novelist had been following around investigators from the coroner’s office as part of the research for a new book. Now he was about to witness the removal of a dead body. The experience would not be easy.
Kellerman drove with the deputies to the hotel and stood by the door as they began their work. The tiny room was a shambles, strewn with clothes, drugs and food wrappers. A woman in her 30s lay naked on the floor.
“It was sad and powerful for me,” Kellerman, 39, recalled over coffee recently at the Elmwood Café in Berkeley. “But for them, it was a day’s work. That isn’t to say they were not sensitive. They were very efficient how they worked together. It was dead silent. Nobody spoke for the duration. It was almost like a ballet.”
That exact event did not make it into Crime Scene, the book co-written by Kellerman and his father, Jonathan Kellerman, which was published on Aug. 1. But the spirit of the scene did.
The book’s central character is Clay Edison, a deputy sheriff working in the Alameda County Coroner’s office. Unlike many places where coroners are lay individuals, coroners in Alameda County are uniformed sheriff’s deputies, and they have the ability to investigate causes of death. So the Kellermans, who have sold millions of books between them, figured that Edison would work well at the center of what they hope will become a new crime series.
The father-and-son writing team made Edison a former star basketball player for UC Berkeley who blew out his knee before his senior year. In his 30s, single and sexy, Edison lives in a Berkeley apartment but travels all around Alameda County for work.
“There are an infinite number of ways to die but only five manners of death,” Edison explains in the opening pages. “Homicide. Suicide. Natural. Accidental. Undetermined.”
The book opens as Edison goes to retrieve the body of a young, white male with “clean gray eyes and soft brown hair” who is lying on his back in the parking lot of a Berkeley fraternity house. Crushed red Solo cups are piled high on the sidewalks, and throngs of students stand behind yellow police tape taking photos of the body with their phones. Edison suspects alcohol poisoning. He is wrong. It was a suicide.
Five days after it came out, Crime Scene had already hit the bestseller lists. A Publisher’s Weekly list named it the #9 bestselling fiction book for the week of Aug. 6.
This is the eighth book Kellerman has written, the third he has co-written with his father, but the first he has set in Berkeley. The city is as much a character as Edison, and Kellerman gets the city’s details right, unlike many other books ostensibly set here. He writes about the French-style bakery on Domingo (Fournée); the Berkeley Tennis Club; about an article appearing in Berkeleyside; about the route from Highway 13 onto Tunnel Road and past the Claremont Hotel.
Kellerman moved to Berkeley about five years ago and he clearly has been exploring the terrain with a novelist’s eye since then. He moved here so his wife, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, a doctor now involved with an executive coaching startup, could be closer to her parents and brother. After bidding on four houses in three and a half years, the pair finally secured a home in the Claremont district. They have two young children.
Even though Kellerman grew up in Los Angeles, attended college and graduate school in Boston, and lived in New York and San Diego, there was something about the light and the terrain that made Berkeley seem instantly familiar, he said.
“I always loved it here,” said Kellerman. “I felt at home in the physical environment,”
Kellerman and his wife are modern Orthodox Jews and have found many new friends in the Jewish community at Congregation Beth Israel on Bancroft Way. Rosen Kellerman’s parents and brother are also members. The Kellermans make the 2.3-mile trek to the synagogue every Saturday, walking both directions.
“It’s a small but very warm and idiosyncratic community and I like that,” said Kellerman.
The Kellerman name is well known in the writing world, as both of Kellerman’s parents have sold millions of crime thrillers throughout the world. Jonathan Kellerman is an Edgar and Anthony Award-winning author who has written 32 books featuring the child psychologist-detective Alex Delaware, along with many others. Some of those have been #1 New York Times bestsellers. Faye Kellerman has more than 20 million copies of her novels in print, many of them featuring Peter Decker, a police detective who left his Southern Baptist heritage to return to his Jewish roots after falling in love with Rina Lazarus, an Orthodox Jew.
While it might seem almost preordained that Kellerman would be a writer, he said his parents never pushed him in that direction. He even started writing before their success. When he was three, he dictated a book to Jonathan, who wrote it down. It was called Apple of Danger. Then Kellerman started a family tradition by writing a series. His next book was called Pear of Danger. It was followed by Orange of Danger and Cherry of Danger.
“It’s hard to understand what in particular I found so menacing about fruit, but there you have it,” he said.
Kellerman submitted a story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine when he was about 13, but it was rejected. After Harvard, he got his MFA in playwriting from Brandeis University, even winning a major award when he was 25. He eventually started writing fiction, only to have his work rejected for more than a decade before he published Sunstroke in 2006. The review site Kirkus called it “a superb debut thriller about love, lust, vengeance, murder and a good girl coping.” Within a month, Sunstroke had sold 42,000 copies and was the main selection of the Book of the Month Club – a significant achievement for a 28-year-old.
If Kellerman had not had that level of success, his father may not have suggested they write together. Jonathan Kellerman had written a few novellas with Faye, but writing with his son was almost accidental. One year, the wildly prolific elder Kellerman had completed two books but was slowing down on his third, a book with a supernatural element. The younger Kellerman was at his parents for the Thanksgiving holiday and asked to read the early parts. Jonathan reluctantly handed over 30 pages explaining the topic was out of his purview.
“It was really cute,” said Kellerman. “My dad, who is this supremely successful guy, was almost bashful. I have never seen him that way. He is supremely confident in what he does.”
Kellerman really liked what he read and over the weekend kept pressing his father to continue the book. At one point Jonathan turned to his son and said, “Why don’t you do it?” That prompted Jesse to reply, “Why don’t we do it together?” The jointly written The Golem of Hollywood came out in 2015, followed by The Golem of Paris in 2016.
“We had a blast,” said Jonathan. “You never know what it is going to be. Jesse and I are very close, we get along well, but writing with somebody … I had no idea. It turned out it was fantastic so we kept doing it because we are having fun.”
Jonathan Kellerman had long thought about writing a novel featuring a coroner and the pair took up that idea but transferred it from Jonathan’s usual Los Angeles locale to Berkeley and the East Bay. They outlined the book together and then Jesse wrote the first draft. He sent it to his father, who refined and rewrote it. Then Jesse did another revision. The manuscript went back and forth between Berkeley and Los Angeles. “It sort of ping-pongs back and forth five or six times until it achieves a kind of unitary voice,” said Kellerman.
The two men have different writing styles. Kellerman says his father has a “terse, hard-boiled” writing style and he writes much longer, complex sentences. So Kellerman has his father sitting on his shoulder while he writes and aims to use his father’s voice. That is often a good thing since Kellerman says he often uses “18 subordinate clauses” until his father’s voice tells him to break up the sentence.
“Every sentence is both him and me,” said Kellerman, who estimates that each sentence has been written and rewritten between 20 and 30 times before an editor sees it.
Crime Scene took the Kellermans about a year to write and they are already working on a sequel. The father and son plan to age Edison in each book and move him from city to city in Alameda County, thereby exploring the complexity of the East Bay. The various cities have different policing styles with different histories. How Berkeley approaches policing is different from how Oakland, long under a federal court order to reform, approaches policing. The subsequent books will explore those themes, he said.
Kellerman still plans to write more of his own books. One project close to his heart has already taken six years of his attention. It will be a fictionalized history based on the life of a Kellerman great aunt from the 1930s to the 1960s. Kellerman did not want to be specific about the plot, but he mentioned her actions generated a 7,000-page CIA dossier. Kellerman has submitted FOIA requests to see the papers but can only get about 1,000 pages at a time. He still is waiting for material that will help him with the novel.
The Kellermans are not planning any East Bay or Bay Area appearances for Crime Scene, although Kellerman says anyone who wants a personalized copy of the book can call Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore on College Avenue to order one. The pair did a reading on publication day at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. The owner, Barbara Peters, has been a champion of all of the Kellermans’ books, and Jesse has never missed an appearance there.
Peters said that her customers like Kellerman’s books because of their “originality and narrative voice – each story fresh, clever, and a surprise.”
“All these delights aside, the real treat of hosting Jesse book to book — both the ones he writes on his own and the ones he writes with his father Jonathan such as Crime Scene — is that he is so charming!” Peters said in an email. “And articulate, modest, and funny. He’s a great interview and a true staff favorite.”