Putnam / 368 pages / $24.95
Since Edgar Allan Poe pioneered the mystery story more than 150 years ago, the genre has undergone countless innovations and permutations, from Poe's locked rooms to Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detectives, from Ed McBain's police procedurals to Patricia Cornwell's forensics-driven novels.
Collectively, they contain a modern mythology of crime while expressing, in the words of pop culture critic John G. Cawelti, "a deep uncertainty about the adequacy of traditional social institutions to meet the needs of individuals for security, for justice, or a sense of significance."
So, whether it's Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories that reflect a deep belief in the virtues of village life or Walter Mosley's midcentury Easy Rawlins tales that reveal an American racism not overtly visible down Chandler's mean streets, I've come to believe that societies get the mysteries they deserve, ones that suit people's preoccupations, fears and gnawing uncertainties.
What then to make of Jesse Kellerman's second crime novel, Trouble? Set in present-day New York City, it features Jonah Stem, a third-year medical student who's three days into a surgery rotation distinguished by impossible hours, arrogant residents who delight in making medical students suffer, and copious amounts of blood and other bodily fluids that have found their way onto Jonah's one pair of work shoes. His biblical namesake's three days in the belly of a great fish could not have been worse.
Sleep-deprived and desperate, Jonah hits the streets at the unlikely hour of 2:30 a.m. to find an all-night shoe store. Why not? New York, he notes, is the "capital of late-night solutions." What the young man encounters is something far worse. On an otherwise empty midtown Manhattan street, he hears a scream remarkable for its "operatic quality: a pure, shrill, hellish beauty" and sees a woman being attacked by a bedraggled, knife-wielding man. In a few taut pages, Kellerman exquisitely conveys the chaos, the God-like imperative of the woman's pleas for help, Jonah's split-second decision to intervene and the dreamlike events that follow when he awakens in his hospital's emergency room.
There was a time when many mysteries would have ended with this scene: A woman, stalked by a crazed maniac bent on her destruction, is saved by her own resourcefulness and a quick-witted hero. A whole subgenre of mystery-suspense novels, not to mention films, called "female-in-jeopardy" has arisen from these iconic myths.
Trouble inverts those myths, choosing to tell its story from the male perspective, its ending-as-beginning opening the door to a larger, more expansive universe. Jonah's defense of Eve Gones (pronounced, she insists, Jones with a "g") is only the beginning of a journey as hellish as her arresting scream.
Jonah would seem to be the perfect hero for the journey. A good-hearted physician in training, he has a history of rescuing women, including a college sweetheart whose baffling neurological decline has not dampened his sense of responsibility, even when fulfilling it means fostering the young woman's unhealthy dependence on his ministrations or being subjected to her manipulative father.
Kellerman takes such pains to show what makes Jonah such a duty-bound, lonely young man that readers will breathe a sigh of relief as he falls into Eve's shapely arms when she shows up on his doorstep some weeks after the attack to express her thanks. And given the new mythology of our post-Sept. 11 lives, heroes and assorted victims-survivors forming post-traumatic relationships is an increasingly acceptable theme.
But so is that persistent maxim, born of our equally litigious culture, that no good deed goes unpunished. Before Jonah can enjoy his 15 minutes of New York Post-driven fame ("Superdoc Battles Sicko w/Knife"), he's back in the clutches of the surgical residents and fending off a civil suit by assailant Raymond Iniguez's relatives, who contend that their brother is mentally ill, harmless and a victim himself. Small wonder Jonah takes refuge in his growing bond with Eve.
But the intensity of their bond has troubling undertones. Early on, the couple "invented records and strove to shatter them: How Many Times in an Hour ... How Hard Can You Do That Before It Hurts." They have sex in public places and in full view of the apartments across the street from Jonah's.
When Eve steps in to help Jonah deal with the abuse of one particularly obnoxious resident, the novel careens from female-in-jeopardy to male-in-jeopardy and puts Jonah on the run from a predator more chilling than anyone Stephen King could dish up, perhaps because Eve so expertly twists and distorts the very impulses that lurk deep inside Jonah's angry heart.
With a nerve-jangling creepiness rising out of well-drawn, absorbing characters, Trouble has a lot to say to 21st-century readers about the gray zone where heroes become villains, victims turn aggressive and love and violence are different sides of the same coin.
That these issues are being raised by a young writer more than a little familiar with mysteries (he's not only the author of the brainy Sunstroke but also the son of modern L.A. crime-writing icons Faye and Jonathan Kellerman) only adds to the fun of watching him deconstruct the myths and stereotypes of the genre and serve them up as something disturbingly and deliciously different, altogether perfect for our times.
Paula L. Woods, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, is the author of the Detective Charlotte Justice novels, including, most recently, "Strange Bedfellows." She wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.