Jonathan Kellerman and his son Jesse Kellerman have already distinguished themselves as ace storytellers, but they’ve outdone themselves with this genre-bending, impossible-to-put-down epic. The Golem of Hollywood tells the story of Jacob Lev, an LAPD detective, Harvard dropout, and burned out alcoholic who’s just been recruited for the most unusual case of his career. Someone’s found a severed head inside an empty house high in the Hollywood hills, with the word “justice” burned into a nearby counter.
Jewish mysticism, detective fiction, psychological complexities, and one of the oldest biblical tales bind together for a story that has no easy answers and eschews the neat ending of genre fiction. Indeed, the conclusion that will leave the reader meditating on the story they’ve just read for a long time to come. The Kellermans quickly strike the balance between the eerie and the intellectual, eschewing gore for questions about the ties that bind and the problems that seem to plague mankind one moment to the next, one continent to the next, one generation to the next, one millennium to the next and to the next, albeit without pretension.
Lev pokes around Los Angeles, consulting old case files, and tries to piece together the mystery of the severed head. It’s a Los Angeles that one of the elder Kellerman’s greatest influences, Raymond Chandler, would certainly recognize, even in the age of Internet connections, cell phones, and DNA testing.
It’s a place that fills its inhabitants with a kind of existential ennui that not even the bottle can quell, a place where the chasm between wealth and justice cannot be breached, and where we’re constantly reminded that justice is a concept that the human mind and human heart are incapable of fully understanding. It’s a concept too awesome for our comprehension, despite our insistence upon it.
When the mystery at hand becomes too complicated to solve based on evidence in Los Angeles alone, Lev hops a plane for the old world and to Prague. It’s there that we become more deeply immersed in the world of the golem, especially the one that is said to have kept Prague safe.
Of course other writers have attempted to incorporate golems in their fiction and have failed. The Kellermans succeed in part because they don’t entirely discount this mythical creature; that is, they understand the use of the myth, its purpose, and the need to believe in something, anything that keeps us shuffling from one moment to the next.
The atmosphere of that great city is as authentic as the Los Angeles portrayed in the novel’s opening and closing moments and as expertly rendered as the Great Britain that Lev visits between making an unexpected discovery and returning to his homeland. These are not exotic locales conjured up for the sake of fulfilling some sort of genre expectation but instead because each place fills a necessary element of the plot.
The characters we meet on the old continent and the supporting characters who populate the more than 500 pages of this work are never cardboard cutouts who merely spit out pieces of exposition or important signposts in the plot. They’re well-realized and brimming with the same vibrancy as Lev and his father, Sam.
It’s further credit to our authors that the novel’s dialogue burns bright with wit and charm and is consistent with the narrative voice. The Kellermans allow the reader to occasionally feel as though he has gotten one or two steps ahead of the narrative, only to be snapped back to reality by some point or other that keeps the pages turning and the quest for the truth high on the priority list.
These qualities and many others make The Golem of Hollywood as much literary fiction as genre fiction, without apology. When the plot does begin to resolve itself, we are not so much relieved with its outcome as we are wiser for having taken this long and tumultuous journey with these characters. For that, the promise that the questions and the thoughts and emotions this story stirs in us are more important than the answers at which we arrive.
The Golem of Hollywood is a rare and original novel, one that upsets and transcends expectations and manages to surprise more often than one has the right to reasonably expect in a work of fiction. And it never disappoints. The story moves along with an urgency and intelligence that marks it as a work that is superior to most and worthy of the legacy that both authors have already established for themselves. For a work of its scope and length, it probes as many questions and beliefs and hopes and fears as it raises, and thus reveals itself as a work in which not one word is wasted.