The woman who puts the davening into whodunnits

Best-selling American crime writer Fay Kellerman makes her thrillers as Jewish as possible.

By Simon Round, September 24, 2009
Faye Kellerman:  a prolific writer, as is husband Jonathan and son Jesse

Faye Kellerman: a prolific writer, as is husband Jonathan and son Jesse

Next time you wander into a bookshop or browse on Amazon, check out the name Kellerman. At any given point there will usually be a Kellerman novel out, probably hovering somewhere high in the bestseller lists.

This is not surprising — Faye Kellerman is a prolific crime writer, as is her husband Jonathan… and their son Jesse has carved his own career as a novelist and playwright. Oh, and then there is 17-year-old Aliza, whose first book, co-written with her mother, is selling briskly too.

It is tempting to think of the Kellerman family home as a kind of fiction factory, with manuscripts being churned out around the clock — one Kellerman editing the manuscript of the other while a third bashes away on the computer. Faye Kellerman chuckles at the thought. Actually, she maintains, her family life is normal, despite the high-profile cottage industry.

Husband Jonathan was the first to get into print in 1985 and Faye, who was trained as a dentist, followed suit a year later. She was attracted by the thriller genre but also wanted to follow the classic advice to “write about what you know”.

So, slightly unusually, the hero of her first detective novel (and a further 16 since) is Peter Decker, a tough Los Angeles detective who decides to convert to Judaism when he meets nice Jewish girl Rina Lazarus. But he turns out, much to his own surprise, to be Jewish himself.

From the feedback I get, readers like the Judaism

So does the Decker/Lazarus family resemble her own? Yes and no, says Kellerman. “The characters are inventions but their family life is a little like ours. Rina is a little more observant than me, and Decker has a child from his first marriage, so it’s a blended family. But it’s like our family in that there is a big gap between the oldest and the youngest — almost half a generation.

“I do try to include a lot of the richness which comes with our religion — the Shabbat meals, the family times, the chagim. Readers seem to like it, and I like it too. In that regard it is reflective of our family. Our week is built around Shabbat and the calendar year is built around the holidays.”

And, no, the Kellermans do not all write around the kitchen table over breakfast. “I have no influence over what Jonathan does and he has no influence on my work. We certainly don’t have a rivalry. I don’t think our marriage could have lasted this long if we did.

“In the first five years we were very diligent about reading each other’s work. For my latest book, Blindman’s Bluff, Jonathan didn’t even read it until it was in book form. He said: ‘You never let me read it’, so I said: ‘Here it is’. He loved it. As for Jesse, well, he is 31 now and an established author in his own right.”

Blindman’s Bluff is a kind of credit crunch thriller revolving around the murder of a billionaire property developer. “It deals,” says Kellerman, “with extreme wealth and what happens when the bubble bursts. It’s about the arrogance of the extremely rich who think they are safe, but don’t realise that no-one is ever completely protected.”

More insights into an observant household are something Kellerman’s readers look forward to.

“From the feedback I get, the readers like the Judaism and they like the family aspect too. The plot keeps people turning the page but it’s the characters that they remember. People who are tangentially Jewish enjoy learning a little about their religion, and people who are more observant like the fact that the characters are portrayed naturally. Those who know nothing about the Jewish religion also seem to find it fascinating.”

There are, however, those who pick faults in her portrayal of a modern Orthodox family, Kellermnan acknowledges. “There’s always someone who will interpret it as too liberal or too conservative. It’s almost like a Rorshach test — you see whatever you want to see from the point of view of your own values.

She maintains that coming up with new plots is the easy part about writing a thriller. The hard bit now, after 23 years and 26 books, is in the execution, so to speak. “Keeping the writing fresh is a problem after all these years. What gets easier is the working out of the mystery.”

She admits that even she does not necessarily know where the book is going when she starts to write. Rather, she begins with a central premise — what she describes as a “wouldn’t it be neat if…” scenario which leads to the development of the plot.

“You back yourself into corners constantly but you learn to sit back, relax and let your subconscious take over. The beauty of the writing is that I have some kind of organisation, but I’m also open to the subconscious.”

Her fascination with a world of violence comes, she says, from her subconscious too, influenced in part by the true-life horror stories of the Holocaust.

“I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when it was all still very new and very raw. My dad, who was a Second World War veteran, used to talk to us about it. I learned that the world was definitely not a safe place for Jews. We should all keep our passports current.”

While she is painfully aware that there are bad people out there, when it comes to writing about them she does not necessarily know their identity.

“In the last three or four novels I didn’t know who the bad guys were going to be or how the murder happened. I have a few characters and I say it could either be this person or that person. I play it so it can go in a lot of different directions and then at the last minute it veers towards a particular outcome.

“When I re-write I always make sure I didn’t make it too obscure. You need to have the right number of clues to lead you to the murderer.”

But you will need to be familiar with Kellerman’s mindset to have a chance of making the right call. As she says: “I don’t know who the bad guy is — how can the reader?”

Blindman’s Bluff is published by HarperCollins at £18.99

Last updated: 10:24am, September 24 2009