They have a way of scaring you, of chasing sleep away, these psychological thrillers that send your heart thumping. Imagine, then, what you are in for when two masters of the genre decide to collaborate. The result is "The Golem of Hollywood," (G.P. Putnam's Sons) by bestselling authors Jonathan Kellerman (The Alex Delaware series) and his son, Jesse Kellerman ("Potboiler," "Trouble"), a story infused with mysticism, mythology, Jewish rituals and fantastical creatures. There's the Golem of the title, of course, but also a mysterious woman, a serial killer (or more) and a bug -- yes, a mean, jealous beetle that has a way of rearing her horned head at the most inappropriate time to haunt our poor protagonist, Jacob Lev.
Detective Jacob Lev is the son of Sam Lev, a kindhearted rabbi and one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel. Jacob's mother, Bina Reich Lev, is an accomplished artist, but her psychological problems make her appear like a "terrorist" to her son, "holding all of them hostage. She argued with voices. She broke things. She stayed in the garage for days without eating or sleeping."
No wonder Jacob is depressed and has a drinking problem.
And, to add to his woes, he wakes up one morning to a blurry memory of having spent the previous night with a blonde -- or a brunette, he is not sure -- who has disappeared, leaving him wondering about his state of mind. That can be problematic in a story that deals with fantasy. Are the strange events that follow truly happening or are they a figment of Jacob's imagination?
Soon after the mysterious disappearance of the woman, Jacob is assigned a top-secret case.
A severed head has been discovered in a deserted house in the Hollywood Hills. "The bottom of the neck had been sealed ... pinched together as if pulled by a drawstring." There is "explosive vomit in one neat pile." You'd better have a stomach for such gory stuff.
The Hebrew word "tzedek," meaning "justice," is burned into the kitchen counter close by. It appears, then, that the only reason this case is assigned to Jacob is his Jewish background.
Jacob embarks on a complicated, often chilling journey of discovery that takes him from Los Angeles to Prague and London. The story moves back and forth between modern times and the biblical account of Cain and Abel and their sister, Asham, who covets her brother Abel. The contemporary dialogue is clever and fast-paced, but it becomes jarring when biblical characters speak in the same manner. Imagine Cain handing Asham a stick and saying, "Here. ... You look like you could use it." Or Asham telling Abel, "Last I checked ..." Or "Don't exaggerate." I doubt this is the way the offspring of Adam and Eve would have communicated. It is not until well into the novel that the connection between the past and present stories becomes clear, and this reader felt herself being yanked away from the present of the story and longing to return to the real action.
Among the pleasures of reading "The Hollywood Golem," especially for an Angeleno like myself, is trailing detective Lev through the familiar streets of Los Angeles on his quest to solve the mystery of the severed head. Equally enjoyable is revisiting the legend of the Golem of Prague, albeit an entirely different type of Golem than the one that the 16th-century talmudic scholar and mystic Judah Loew ben Bezalel (known as the Maharal of Prague) fashioned from clay to protect the Jewish populace from persecution. But, above all, it is a pleasure to witness the developing relationship between Jacob and Sam and how life forces father and son into acknowledging, accepting and even appreciating their differences.