When the Bough Breaks – Jonathan Kellerman

Title: When the Bough Breaks
Author: Jonathan Kellerman
Published by: Penguin, Random House
Publication date: April 1st 1985
Genre: Crime/Thriller
Pages: 432
Format: Paperback
Source: Private Collection


In the first Alex Delaware novel, we meet Dr. Morton Handler who practiced a strange brand of psychiatry. Among his specialties were fraud, extortion, and sexual manipulation. Handler paid for his sins when he was brutally murdered in his luxurious Pacific Palisades apartment. The police have no leads, but they do have one possible witness: seven-year-old Melody Quinn. It’s psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware’s job to try to unlock the terrible secret buried in Melody’s memory. But as the sinister shadows in the girl’s mind begin to take shape, Alex discovers that the mystery touches a shocking incident in his own past. This connection is only the beginning, a single link in a forty-year-old conspiracy. And behind it lies an unspeakable evil that Alex Delaware must expose before it claims another innocent victim: Melody Quinn.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve read a couple of Jonathan Kellerman books prior to this one and I rather like his easy-to-read, writing style, mixed in with topics that can be hard to digest. When the Bough Breaks is the first in his Alex Delaware series; of which I read book 36, Serpentine, in the series a while back. I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of this book in a large book sale while on vacation.

When the Bough Breaks is the first in a long-running series featuring child psychologist, Alex Delaware. Dr Delaware is the sort of man that has everything going for him, he is successful in his chosen career, has invested his hard-earned money in property and, after traumatic events that have impacted both his professional and personal life, has been able to retire early at the age of 33. However, a close friend of his; Milo Sturgis, has dumped a new case on his lap and he just cannot help but scratch that working itch.

Alex Delaware is a complex, multi-layered characters. As a child-psychologist he has an advantage in cases such as this one that involve building a bond with a young girl that may be the key-witness in a murder investigation; the moments between Delaware and Melody Quinn are described well, coming across as both professional but also with a casual flavour. Although these scenes aren’t numerous they are tender and enjoyable to read. It adds and ease to the presentation of Delawares profession and we can see early on that he is a caring man when it comes to the children he comes to help – unlike some of the other characters in the story who certainly don’t have that degree of attentiveness to their charges.

The plot of When the Bough Breaks starts off with a bit of a backstory dump, telling the reader all about the life and trials of Alex Delaware, why he has sequestered himself away to a life of peaceful solitude away from the business of daily life and the toll that takes – he is a man suffering from acute burnout in a profession that he feels alienated from. While moderately interesting, this aspect of the story does feel a bit of a chore to get through; especially when you just want to get to the crux of what’s happening in the current events of the novel. You’re told the tidbits of the investigation from Milo Sturgis, Delawares friend and local police enforcement, and I was eager to find out more. However, as the back story is revealed, you develop a deeper connection with the main character and I found myself rooting for him all the more. Especially as the plot got much, much darker.

The investigation itself takes Alex Delaware into the life of the rich and powerful and we are introduced to new characters and concepts; each of which adds to the plot and has their own role to play as things progress. There are a bunch of very unsavoury characters and their depravities dip into the worst abuses possible. Kellerman doesn’t shy away from describing some of these atrocities; dipping into foul descriptions of sexual child abuse as well as murder scenes, suicides and animal abuse. Considering this is a mature novel for adult readers, these descriptions aren’t anything to baulk at, but they are present, which isn’t to everyones tastes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – I’ll address a few points in a moment – until the 85% mark. Prior to this point, the story was all about investigating what certain members of high-society were doing, how they were going about their dastardly deeds and how they all connected to one another. Then, it all got a little incredulous; Alex Delaware gets into a high-speed chase with a motorbike, effectively commits murder/manslaughter and barely covers his tracks. Then he effectively tortures someone for information, bribes and assaults another man before breaking into a secure childrens orphanage to perform a rescue. It all just got a little bit too much to be believable anymore, which is a shame because the story until this point held so much promise.

The points I’d like to address are a reflection on when this book was written and published. 1985. When the Bough Breaks is showing its age with the language employed within. Alex Delaware does a lot of work with children with special needs. They are often referred to as spastics or retards. Growing up in the times where they words were thrown around the playground as insults (90s) it’s easy to see that they’re no longer have the meaning that they once did. These terms are no longer acceptable, to the point that The Spastic Society changed its name to Scope in 1994. So, reading the terms too casually thrown about in this novel had me looking up when it was published. Upon seeing it was mid 80s, I then adjusted my alarm upon reading them. The 1980’s had different values and terms deemed acceptable.

With this consideration in mind, I then appreciated the character, Milo Sturgis a bit more. Milo is a police officer, the one investigating the murder that Melody Quinn could be an essential witness too. He is also homosexual, written in a time during the emerging AIDs crisis, I found this character thoughtful and compelling. Especially in the eyes of Alex Delaware, who found initial discomfort with his friends sexual orientation; but is still coming to terms with acceptance of it. Alex Delaware isn’t an easy to like character. While he is sensitive and caring towards the children in his care he is homophobic – and trying to overcome this aspect of his character. Milo lives in a society that has placed barriers in front of him; and despite having a new boyfriend he faces hardships for his sexuality. Even better, is the fact there’s no stereotype to his character.

There are another couple of pitfalls for the book too; Alex Delaware and his description towards women isn’t favourable. His thoughts on how successful they are in life is often twinned with how physically attractive they are and if he has had a relationship with them or not. Again, I am somewhat assuming that this is a sign of the times when writing the book and a reflection of 1980s attidudes.

Of more of an impact to me as a reader though is the lack of real closure to the book; the novel is wrapped up in most ways – with the baddies being brought to justice and the case close – but I did feel that there was any lack of resolution for the children involved with the criminal case. It felt like the story came to an abrupt end without any sense of closure; especially considering how some of the justice was dealt.


A good case-building plot that ends somewhat incredulously involving scenes that require a real suspension of disbelief. Some fantastically described elements to the book; that often boarder into the macabre. Heavy topics involved in the story including child abuse, pedophillia, violence and animal abuse. An abrupt end to an otherwise decent novel. Written in the 1980s and writing style reflects the times.

4 responses to “When the Bough Breaks – Jonathan Kellerman”

  1. Good review Jenn. Some days the 80s doesn’t seem that far away to me but when I read your review I’m reminded about how far we, as a society, have come since then. Quick question on that point though: is the out dated terminology spoken in the ‘character’s voice’ or the author’s so to speak?




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