Home Sweet Homicide

updated 02/19/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

JONATHAN AND FAYE KELLERMAN, the bestselling authors of suspense thrillers, were sound asleep in the spacious bedroom of their Beverly Hills home last December when Jesse, their 17-year-old, burst in with the big news: He'd been accepted to Harvard. "Their immediate reaction was to wake everybody up, and we danced around the house in our pajamas," says Jesse. "My mother started videotaping me. That's the type of family this is."

The Kellerman household is a comfortable combination of all-American coziness and L.A. luxe: with parents whose book sales afford them an 8,000-square-foot home, his and hers black Jags, separate home offices and an enviable collection of art and antiques; four healthy, happy kids (Jesse, Rachel, 14, liana, 10, and Aliza, 3); and a pack of blue-blooded hounds (Archie, a French bulldog; Dreamy, a papillon spaniel; and Belladonna, a Sicilian mastiff). What's wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing, say Faye and Jonathan, who even after 23 years of marriage are still gaga about one another. "He's very warm, unstubborn, sweet, cute, and he grumbles a lot," says Faye. Notes Jonathan: "She's sexy, stable and brilliant. I'm glad I was smart enough to not be threatened by somebody smarter."

So how is it that Jonathan, 46, and Faye, 43, remove themselves mentally from their idyllic surroundings and dream up demented characters like those in their latest books? In his just-published bestseller The Web, Jonathan's child psychologist-sleuth Dr. Alex Delaware untangles a mystery involving "worm" people and disemboweled bodies. Injustice, published in September, Faye's detective Peter Decker and his wife, Rina Lazarus (sort of an Orthodox Jewish Hart to Hart), draw readers into a world of sex kittens and mob hits. "We comb the newspapers for bizarre cases, and online is great," says Faye. "You can scan The New York Times for serial killers or racially motivated crimes, then you add your imagination."

Between them, the Kellermans have published 22 novels, including 15 best-sellers (11 for him, 4 for her). They pen a book a year apiece, with his timed for release in the winter and hers in the summer so that only one is away on tour at a time. "It's a great cottage industry," says Jonathan. "We sit here, write books, mail them in. There's a beautiful simplicity to it." And being one another's first critics, they enjoy in-house editorial supervision, yet claim to suffer not a whit of competitive envy. "It all goes in the same bank account," says Faye, who concedes, "My dream is to become as big a seller as Jonathan, because I know how much money he makes."

Mr. Kellerman, a native of New York City, met the St. Louis-born Faye Marder in 1970 at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, where both of their families had moved in the '50s. A UCLA freshman, she would later flirt with the idea of a future in dentistry; Jonathan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California, spotted Faye at the center's volleyball court. To be near her, he began bagging groceries at her father's supermarket, where she worked briefly as a checker. She was equally smitten. "He was the funniest guy I had ever met," she says. "And he played the guitar." Three months later they announced to their stunned parents that they were engaged. The pair wed in '72.

As students, their early life was far from opulent. "It was a real Barefoot in the Park kind of period where we lived on six or seven grand a year," says Jonathan, whose father was an in-ventor and whose mother was a semi-professional dancer. Faye's late father, Oscar, donated food from his store "even if we didn't need it. What does a newly married couple need with 10 pounds of lox?"

While building his psychology practice, Jonathan spent evenings writing eight novels that were rejected. "I was a failed writer with a good day job," he says. It wasn't until 1985 that he broke through with When the Bough Breaks, which earned a meager advance ("I could have flipped burgers and done better") but won an Edgar Award as the best mystery novel of the year. In 1987, after publishing a third book, Kellerman left his practice to concentrate on writing. At the time he didn't know that Faye had been secretly trying to write a novel too. "He was always the writer in the family. I felt like an impostor," says Faye, whose first book, The Ritual Bath, was published in 1986. Far from being threatened, Jonathan applauded Faye's efforts. "She was at loose ends," he says. "Getting in touch with her creativity has turned out to be wonderful for her."

Barney Karpfinger, Kellerman's New York-based agent, was a bit wary when Jonathan asked him to take a look at Faye's book. "Your expectations are not always so high in a situation like that," he says. But not only did Karpfinger love The Ritual Bath, he had an easier time selling it than Jonathan's first book, which troubled publishers because the theme touched on child abuse.

The Kellermans have settled into a comfortable routine of raising the kids in a kosher home, writing at least three hours every morning and setting aside time for exercise. On occasion, the two will even go out to lunch together, arranging details over the intercom that connects their elegantly appointed offices. And yes, there are times when they actually flare up. "When we fight," says Jonathan, "it's like a Virna Lisi-Marcello Mastroianni movie with no broken crockery." Though they love what they do, they have no intention of doing it as collaborators. "When you have a household like this, you never get a moment to yourself," says Jonathan. "I share everything else with Faye, but I don't want to share writing with anybody."

ROB HOWE
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Beverly Hills

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