T. Jefferson Parker stares out the window of his Fallbrook office. What he sees is eucalyptus. “And then,” he said, “beyond the eucalyptus, there’s the tangerine tree and the two orange trees and a lemon tree. We live off of those tangerines. They’re popular around here, especially with our boys. I see an avocado grove off to my right and a plum tree that’s naked right now, but will be budding out shortly. There’s a huge palm tree where red-shouldered hawks nest. Beyond all this, of course, are rolling hills. It’s still very much a rural place, Fallbrook is.”
And what Mr. Parker hears outside his windows are the hawks. “They scream and make this kind of aiiee sound. They’re looking for squirrels and rabbits and mice. I’ve got a tiny toy dog — a papillon — that I walk outside several times a day to do his deeds. I keep an eye on him when the big hawks are cruising because those hawks have been known every once in a while to lift a cat or a small dog.”
Author of 11 mystery novels, including Laguna Heat and the recently released Cold Pursuit, Mr. Parker — “Jeff,” his friends call him — moved to Fallbrook three years ago (the T, by the way, like the S in Harry S. Truman, stands for nothing. Mr. Parker’s mother added the T because, she said jokingly, she thought it would look good on presidential letterhead). You’ll find Mr. Parkers titles not only in bookstores but on airport and grocery store book racks and riding atop bestseller lists. In 2002, the Mystery Writers of America awarded his ninth book. Silent Joe, with the mystery novels’ most prestigious prize — the Edgar, named after Edgar Allan Poe.
Mr. Parker, a Laguna Beach resident for 20 years, is best known for novels set in Orange County — fast-paced plots whose atmosphere is described as “sun-drenched noir.” Cold Pursuit is the first novel he has set in San Diego.
Mr. Parker was born in 1953 in Los Angeles. When he was five, his family — mom, dad, the three kids — moved to Orange County. I was curious as to what Orange County was like in the late 1950s. “It was fabulous,” Mr. Parker said. “I’m writing a book about it now. My next novel is set primarily in 1966 in Orange County — Tustin and Laguna Beach. So I’ve become newly fascinated with that time. It was a great time to grow up. The late 1950s and early 1960s were an era of vertiginous change. You had powerful things going left and right and these longhaired weird people getting stoned all the time. But the country was still being run by the guys with flattops.” “Who,” I said, interrupting, “now seem like great statesmen.”
“And then,” Mr. Parker noted, “they were the guys we didn’t trust.”
Orange County, he went on to say, “was very suburban then. It was a bunch of little towns and a lot of orange groves, and when we moved there in 1959 the building boom certainly was on. But there were still a lot of orange groves. And far different than it is today. It changed immensely in the last three decades.”
Mr. Parker is one of those rare Americans of his age who lived in the same house for almost all his growing-up years. Life, he indicated, was pretty good. “It was Little League and bodysurfing and a Country Squire Ford station wagon painted red with fake wood on it.”
I asked Mr. Parker about his boyhood bedroom.
“Bunk beds, shared the room with my brother Matt, who is two years younger than me. A smallish room, but it opened to the back yard, which of course had dichondra in it, and we had a little black dog, a little cocker spaniel mixed dog named Pudgie, who was a delight.”
Mr. Parker recalled, in “Parker’s Place,” a weekly column that he wrote from 1992 to 1995 for the Orange County section of the Los Angeles Times, “I thought about the hours Dad spent with me at the Little League diamond, on Indian Guide cam-pouts, in our Tustin garage where he would stand me beside his magnificently organized workbench and show me how to use a sander, a plane, a level — and how to put them back where they belonged.”
About his parents, Mr. Parker said, “My mom was a secretary and a homemaker, and my dad was an aerospace defense engineer with a flattop. My mom was a little bit on the hip and rebellious side. They were literary people as far as their interests go, although they weren’t professionally literary people. But they read widely for entertainment and for information. Intellectual things were encouraged, and yet we weren’t really an egghead family. We had quite a nice library in the living room of our suburban Tustin home. We had a nice bookshelf and we had a lot of neat books. We had big, fancy outdoor books because my dad was a hunter and an outdoorsman. We had fiction, from Jack London to Edgar Allan Poe, which is what I cut my teeth on when I was small, although the first thing that I can remember truly, truly loving was a children’s book called Shag, Last of the Plains Buffalo.
“That was such a great book. I’ve still got it. My mom told me a story that I can’t confirm or deny, but she told me that when I was an infant that I was often inconsolable, as small people are, and she found nothing would console. I didn’t want to be hugged, I didn’t want to be talked to, I didn’t want to be fed, I was warm enough. There was nothing wrong. But I was caterwauling. She discovered that if she put me in the crib and read to me out loud from whatever she was reading, that I would be quiet, and my little eyes would come into focus and I would listen to her read. Marjorie Momingstar was my favorite book, according to her.
“I was always easily caught by books, especially fiction. I was never a precocious child. It wasn’t like I was one of those who were reading at the age of four. I read on schedule with the rest of the students but always enjoyed it. And still do. It’s kind of like whatever books I’m reading is like what I’m eating, and when I’m reading good stuff I feel pretty good. And if for some reason I have to read bad stuff, it makes me feel lousy.”
Did his parents subscribe to the New Yorker when Mr. Parker was a boy?
“I subscribed to the New Yorker in high school. We were not an intellectually forward-looking family. We were more conservative — maybe ‘parochial’ would be the more accurate word. We weren’t interested in New York.”
Television-watching was strictly monitored in the Parker home. “Mom and Dad were very suspicious of the boob tube, or the idiot box. We were good for a half an hour a night during the school year, and maybe a little more during the summer, although not much. I think that we may have been the last ones on the block to get television. I don’t know if we ever got color TV. I do know that we’d have to go next door to the Fortners’ to watch the Laker playoffs in color.”
His father, Mr. Parker said, “was a real political animal — a full-on John Birch Society agitator for a few years in the early 1960s. He always engaged us politically. We had lots of political discussions around the dinner table.”
Did his father stay with the Birch Society?
“No. I think he just kind of outgrew that kind of organization. He’s still a conservative thinker, very much so, but he never was much of an organization man.”
“When you and your brother and your sister were still at home, did you have political arguments with your father?”
“Oh, yes. We would have some pretty good ones. Especially when we children would trot back from school with what appeared to be liberal ideas. We would become incendiary over the dinner table.”
After high school, Mr. Parker attended San Diego State for one year, Orange Coast Community College for one year, and then, after two years at UC Irvine, he graduated in 1976 from that university with a degree in English.
“It was in college,” Mr. Parker said, that he decided for sure that he would be a writer. “I thought about it in high school, and I went to college and read a lot and goofed off a lot for my four years. But in the back of my mind, and I think often even in the front of my mind during that time, I was seriously trying to figure out how to become a writer. I was never interested in doing anything else.
“My main job after college was as a newspaper reporter. That was my only real kind of legit job. I did a lot of other goofy things during college, waiting tables, whatever. But I was a reporter for five years. Two years on a weekly paper, the Newport Ensign, and three years on a daily paper in Orange County, the Daily Pilot. After that, I worked in the defense industry — at Ford Aerospace in Newport — very briefly as a technical editor on an aerospace project. It paid more than being a reporter, and it was easier and it left me more time to write.”
During his newspapering years Mr. Parker wrote fiction in his spare time. He worked first on a novel that he describes as “a bildungsroman about a surfer,” a beginner’s novel that he has no intention of trying to publish. When he was 25, he began what would become Laguna Heat. “I spent a lot of afternoons and evenings on it, and weekends. My friends thought I was an idiot for missing all those fishing trips and parties, but I had to get the job done. I didn’t finish it and sell it until I was 30. I was 31 when it came out.”
“Did you ever feel as if your manuscript was your best friend?”
“I did. I was happy to have that to do. When I say I didn’t believe the book would necessarily ever be published, that’s true. But it’s also true that during those years, as is true now, you feel like you have been given something that you know what to do with. And not everybody can say that.”
Laguna Heat, I said, is a great title. Mr. Parker agreed. “I didn’t even think of that one. It is fun to say; it’s very evocative. It’s one of those phrases, when you say it, you feel like it was already in the language, like you’d picked up a phrase that had been there for decades.”
I asked, “When you were writing Laguna Heat, did you feel that maybe you had something there, that the book might be truly successful, which, in fact, it went on to be?” “No, I had low expectations and hopes for Laguna Heat. I was so young and unsure of myself, I honestly didn’t know if that book would ever be published at all. I told myself — my going-in position was — that if this book gets published, I’m going to be happy. Sales aside, and critics aside, and everything. My goal was just to get the thing into print. But I had no deep conviction that that was going to happen.”
“What made you feel confident enough to quit your job and begin to write full-time?”
“Let’s see, how did it happen? Laguna Heat was published the same week that I was laid off of my defense-industry job. They fired perhaps 1000 of us from this project. I had just enough money in my checking account because of foreign sales of Laguna Heat. My agent had sold it to five or six different countries. None of it was for much money. But when you added it up, it was enough to live on for perhaps four months. I decided that I would try to become a professional writer and drum up another book really quickly rather than go back and try to get another job.”
“What did your parents say after they read Laguna Heat?"
“They were real proud of me. Very, very proud. Dad was kind of surprised that anybody could actually make a living by making up stories. Mom was just really, really, really pleased for me because she knew that for a long time I’d wanted to do that and she knew that it takes a lot of discipline to write a book and get it out there. I was worried, though, because that first book is a kind of intense family tale. The father turns out to have done something not that great, so I wondered if Dad would take it personally, but he didn’t. He has always understood the difference between fiction and real life.”
I had read in one of Mr. Parker’s Los Angeles Times columns that Laguna Heat was “a book (he) could never envision selling until [he] saw it in the window of Marriner’s Bookstore in late August of 1985.” I read, too, that with part of the money he got for Laguna Heat he bought a black Ford T-Bird with a sport suspension and a V-8 engine.
After Laguna Heat, there came Little Saigon (1988) and Pacific Beat (1991). Mr. Parker’s fourth novel, Summer of Fear (1993), carried painful freight. The house where Monroe, the novel’s narrator, lives is similar to the Laguna Beach house where Mr. Parker lived for so many years. Monroe’s wife has a brain tumor.
In September 1988, Mr. Parker married a gorgeous and energetic 31-year-old rock ’n’ roll singer whose nickname was Cat. She was lead singer in her brother’s band — Voyager — that, at the time she and Mr. Parker married, had been performing on Disneyland’s Tomorrowland Terrace stage for ten years. The band, Mr. Parker has written, “got paychecks with a little Mickey Mouse on them.” Away from Disneyland, when the band played at venues in Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, they called themselves Cat and the Bytes (and it was at the Sandpiper in Laguna Beach where Mr. Parker first heard his wife-to-be sing).
The couple had been married for a year when Mr. Parker’s mother died of a brain tumor. Three months later, Cat was diagnosed with brain cancer. In January 1992, when Catherine Anne “Cat” Parker was 34, the cancer killed her.
“My idea of dealing with it,” Mr. Parker told an interviewer, “was to finish the book [Summer of Fear], talk to a psychiatrist, drink a lot, and, interestingly enough, I took up the game of tennis because it’s fast and violent and a great way to take out aggression without being thrown in jail.” What Mr. Parker learned about grief during this period after his wife’s death was that “there’s no real way to do it besides the way you do it. You just pass through time, and once I learned that there wasn’t really anything I could do to feel substantially better."
Remarried in 1997, mr. Parker and his wife Rita are parents to a 4 1/2-year-old son and an 11 -year-old son whom Rita Parker brought to the marriage. (Where Serpents Lie, published in 1998, bears a dedication to Rita, “on this new morning.”) The family lived for several years in Mr. Parker’s Laguna Beach residence. “Then,” said Mr. Parker, “when our little boy was born, we immediately outgrew our home. It was a small house and my writing room became my son’s room. I had to rent an apartment to work in. And that was obviously no way to run a household economically, making mortgage payments on a house and rent payments on an apartment.
“I looked all over south Orange County for a place to live that would accommodate our two boys and my desire to work out of the house in some way, yet in the house. I could not find a big lot with a roomy house and a detached building on it so that I would have a quiet place to work.
“I thought, ‘Let’s go down to Fallbrook and check it out, make a vacation out of it.’ So Rita and I came down here and drove around and we liked it. It was wintertime. The whole town smelled like citrus. It’s green, it’s spread out, it’s lazy, there’s not a lot going on. We’re not out in the country really at all. We’re kind of near Fallbrook, so there’s plenty of neighbors around and the streets are all paved and it’s really kind of gentrified. It’s a great place to write, and it’s a good place to raise up our boys.”
How has Mr. Parker gone about “learning San Diego”?
“I did what everybody does who’s new to the area. I read the Reader, I read the U-T, I read San Diego magazine. I spend time going between Fallbrook and San Diego. I like downtown San Diego. We go down there often for dinner, shows, sporting stuff, galleries. When we were first here, we took the tour boat that goes around San Diego Harbor to kind of get acquainted with the harbor. This is the cruise where they give you history.”
When he started work on Cold Pursuit Mr. Parker toured San Diego Central Jail. “It was just a standard jail tour. I’m always fascinated by the protocol and the procedures and the terms — the nomenclature always fascinates me. I changed this jail a little bit in the book. Why I did this was that I needed for the exercise yard to be set up in such a way that one of the characters could get face-to-face with another character.
“Also for this book, I interviewed Captain Ron Newman of the San Diego Police Department, who just recently retired. He retired right after the Danielle van Dam arrest. He was kind of the backbone of the robbery/homicide division in San Diego for many years and a great cop. He’s exactly the guy that you would not want to have after you if you’d done something you should not have done.
“Captain Newman helped me figure out the organization of the robbery/homicide division. San Diego runs a different style of homicide investigating than most other departments. They work in five-person teams, which makes writing hard. As soon as I learned that, I thought, ‘Oh, great, now I’m going to have to have five main characters.’ So I kind of fudged on it and I paired Tom McMichael [Cold Pursuit's homicide detective] off with HectorPaz.
“What else did I do? I spent a fair amount of time with my nose in old magazines dealing with the once-grand tuna industry. I spent time on the Berkeley, made more than one trip down there. I went to the Tuna Boat Association office down in Tuna Harbor and I got some phone numbers and I talked to some tuna boat association people over the telephone.”
“When you set up interviews, how do you explain what you’re doing?”
“I just say I’m a book writer and what I’m working on, and you can tell real quick: people are either going to open up and be helpful or they’re going to shut you down. I was lucky on this one; everybody I talked to was helpful.”
In Cold Pursuit several characters meet at a cigar club — the Libertad — in the Gaslamp. “The radio,” Mr. Parker writes, “was turned to Cuban music and the lounge smelled of cured tobacco and cedar. There were already some smokers at the bar and the book nook and the magazine table, mostly downtown professionals winding down from the week.”
Was this a place to which Mr. Parker went?
“Yes. That’s patterned on a place that’s real. I don’t know the name of it. I went there years ago when I was smoking cigars. I bought a box. But I didn’t go back for this book, because I wanted to change it and make it just suit my purposes. And maybe remind people of the real place that’s down there.”
Here’s what Cold Pursuit's flap copy has to say:
Homicide cop Tom McMichael is on the rotation when an 84-year-old city patriarch named Pete Braga is found bludgeoned to death. Not good news, especially since the Irish McMichaels and the Portuguese Bragas share a violent family history dating back three generations. Years ago Braga shot McMichael’s grandfather in a dispute over a paycheck; soon thereafter Braga’s son was severely beaten behind a waterfront bar — legend has it that it was an act of revenge by McMichaels father.
McMichael must put aside the old family blood feud, and find the truth about Pete Braga’s death. Braga’s beautiful nurse is a suspect — she says she stepped out for some firewood, but key evidence suggests otherwise. The investigation soon expands to include Braga’s business, his family, the Catholic diocese, a multi-million dollar Indian casino, a prostitute, a cop, and, of course, the McMichael family.
From where did the title — Cold Pursuit — come?
“Cold Pursuit was for me supposed to be a takeoff on ‘hot pursuit,’ cold being the weather. Maybe it would make the reader think, ‘Hmm, well, usually it’s the cops who are in hot pursuit; I wonder if maybe this is what the bad guy is thinking?’ So it was the turning that phrase over on its head a little. I went through a jillion titles with my editor and agent. We went back and forth and up and down, and back and forth, and up and down, about a thousand different times. I’d about given up and told them to name the damn thing whatever they wanted. At three in the morning, I woke up when I was thinking about titles, and I was down to two days to come up with a title, and I thought, ‘Cold Pursuit, hmm, that’s not too bad. Maybe that’ll work.’ But everything works at three in the morning. So I jotted it down and woke up the next day and called my agent and said,‘I think that’s a pretty good title.’ So it became Cold Pursuit.” Here’s Cold Pursuit's first paragraph:
That night the wind came hard off the Pacific, an El Nino event that would blow three inches of rain onto the roofs of San Diego. It was the first big storm of the season, early January and overdue. Palm fronds lifted with a plastic hiss and slapped against the windows of McMichael’s apartment. The digitized chirp of his phone sounded ridiculous against the steady wind outside.
I wondered how Mr. Parker happened upon that particular opening.
“That scene pretty much came to me. I’m a complete sucker for the weather. If I can get in an El Nino event, even in a year in January when there was not a single drop of rain in San Diego, I’m going to put it in. The weather certainly is inspiring, and the old ‘dark and stormy night’ kind of cliche appeals to me.
“I remember writing that scene. One thing a mystery writer learns, I think most of us learn, is that any mystery writer who’s going to write a book a year is a busy person. So when you sit down to write that new book, you gather up your characters and your emotion and the feeling that you have, the reason that you’re writing the book, even though you don’t really know what it is, and you write that first scene, that murder scene, in such a way that there’s a lot of things that can be drawn from it. And you can draw a lot of evidence out of it.
“So when I wrote that scene, I tried to imagine in detail all the things that I might want to work with later in the book and at least suggest them in ways that didn’t look too phony when I went back and started following that trail. In a scene like that I try to be as inclusive as I can as far as my imagination goes. If I have some feeling that I’m going to need this odd thing in this scene for whatever reasons that I don’t understand yet, I’ll put it in. Later on in the book I may have to take it back out again. But for me the opening, that’s a time of sowing seeds. As a book concludes, it’s a time of reaping what you’ve sown. It goes to the not widely understood fact that most writers make it up as they go along. Which is what I do.”
“The old saw that goes ‘Where there’s discovery for the writer, there’s discovery for the reader,’ although trite, seems entirely true.”
Mr. Parker agreed.
“I think you’re right. But no editor in New York is going to agree with that or sign you to a contract based on that concept. They want to see an outline of what is going to happen.”
How did Mr. Parker imagine this storm affecting his readers?
“I don’t know. I love storms so much. The first thing that I do when I get out here into my little tin building where I write is this. Every morning I get out here, it’s dark. The first thing I do, I turn on my light, and then the second thing I do is I turn on my Radio Shack $19 weather-station radio, because I want to know what the weather is going to do.
“So like today, when there’s obviously weather afoot, it’s exciting to hear the highs and the lows in the systems that are coming and where they’re going and what’s going to happen. Maybe it’s because we get such a little weather in this part of Southern California that what little we do get is really, really interesting.”
Weather, I said, seems to set moods in fiction in much the same way that weather sets moods in real life.
“It does. It’s very evocative and powerful. I’ve used heat in my books a lot, unseasonably hot times and wet times, like in this one. Didn’t Hemingway say, ‘Always put in the weather?' ”
On Cold Pursuit's first page, Pete Braga is found dead. Braga’s home, where he’s murdered, is in Point Loma. Mr. Parker in Cold Pursuit describes that home. “Fete Braga’s estate was on the bay side of Point Loma, right down on the water. Three levels of weathered redwood and plate glass descended to the sand. The glass caught the wind-fractured lights of Shelter Island and the city across the bay.”
Braga is an ex-tuna-boat captain and “a Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealer a few years after the tuna industry collapsed — Pete’s robust, gray-haired face smiling down at you from freeway billboards on the 5 and the 8, and the 163 and along Clairemont Mesa Blvd.” Braga is also a port commissioner and a city booster, “always tossing out the first pitch at a Padres . game, smiling while a champagne bottle cracked against a hull, touring the latest open-
ing or disaster.”
I asked Mr. Parker how he happened to make Braga Portuguese and how he learned all the tuna-fishing lore that goes into Cold Pursuit.
“The Portuguese stuff I learned not firsthand but secondhand. When I was 20 years old, a couple of years out of Tustin High School, my brother, who was 18 and just out of Tustin High School, he got a scholarship to Point Loma College. For basketball. He’s six foot five, pretty well coordinated, beautiful basketball player. Before school started that September, he was riding a skateboard down a hill and he ruined his knee. He was not able to play basketball ever again. But he went to school there for a year, got sick of it, and went down to the waterfront and hopped on a tuna boat. He signed on as a quarter-share fisherman.
“Which is exactly what happens to McMichael’s grandfather in the book. And my brother was ripped off for his four months at sea, or six months at sea, whatever it was. They paid him nothing when they came back. And they said, ‘When we have a lousy trip, the money that you make all goes to room and board and fuel; you get nothing.’ When Matt protested, the guys who were running the boat basically threw him off it. He said that they’re tough Portuguese, they don’t take any shit from you, and you do what they tell you to do. They bounced him without paying him, and that stuck in his craw and it stuck in my imagination for many, many years.
So the incident that begins the story is what happened to my brother. Matt gave me all that. He told me a ton of that stuff. And then I discovered the San Diego Historical Society Maritime Museum, right down there on the Berkeley. It’s incredible. They’ve got tons of stuff there. I found great old articles about the tuna fleets.”
Mr. Parker does a terrific job of taking his book learning about, for instance, the history of the tuna industry in San Diego and putting the facts of this history into his characters’ mouths.
“Well,” he said, about this, “you try to put a little conversational tone to it. You have to, otherwise you end up getting too technical on people and it’s no fun. It stops sounding like a novel.”
Tom McMichael makes much of being Irish-American. “The McMichael ears, of course, were the kicker — thick-edged and lightly freckled — the ears of County Cork boys who came to America in steerage. McMichael could always spot his ancestors in the old photographs: the ones with the tough eyes, the ready smiles, and ears like wingnuts.”
I teased Mr. Parker, saying, “McMichael is the first example of Irish-American self-hatred I’ve ever read. All that stuff about the big ears and all.”
“He’s down on the Irish a little bit, yes. Tom’s ears. I put that in because of those old pictures that you see where those guys always seem to have such big ears as little kids. Maybe it was because of the way their hair was cut then, sort of crudely. So I thought I would make those ears one of McMichael’s motifs.”
I asked Mr. Parker, “How would you describe yourself, physically?”
“Let’s see. I’m 5'10", 175, brown hair, brown eyes, kind of regular build. What’s distinguishing on me? I don’t really have anything physically distinguishing.”
“If you were going to write you, how would you describe you?”
“I would quote Raymond Chandler. ‘One hundred seventy-five pounds of frustration under a bad haircut.’ ” “Are you a Chandler fan?”
“I am. I respect him immensely and he still entertains me. I try to re-read one of his books each year.”
McMichael wonders if Pete Braga’s place on the Port Commission has anything to do with his murder. McMichael queries his father about the commission. This is what McMichael’s father says: Pete was Port Commission, now wasn’t he?
And Port Commission controls all the bay and the land around it. They control the airport. Every time money changes hands at the airport, Pete’s Port Commission gets some of it. But there’s people
try to build a new airport. Bigger and better and very damned expensive, you can bet. The state makes up this new Airport Authority to oversee the idea of a new airport. The city and the business types, they’re all for it like you’d figure, but Pete and the Port Commission they’re trying to keep the old airport up and working, right where it is. Then, a few months ago, Pete starts making noises about letting the new Airport Authority take over Lindbergh Field, close it down and build the new one. Some of the Port Commission people aren’t happy. They think Pete’s switching sides ind they can’t figure out why.
I said to Mr. Parker that the commission’s large place in recent news could be somewhat helpful to Cold Pursuit. Mr. Parker did not disagree. “Well, you start to get interested in something and things sort of fall into your lap sometimes. Right now, for instance, I think it’s safe to say that the Port Commission, as we knew it, and as is suggested in the book, is really on its last legs. It’s going to be defunct in a few years.”
“Have you ever known anyone who was murdered?”
“Yes. He was a family man in his 40s. I was a youngish reporter. I never wrote about it and still haven’t.”
“Have you ever seen a murder victim?”
“Just in the morgue. Never a murder scene.” “How do you decide on a weapon for your victim’s murder? Knife? Gun? Big rock?”
“It comes from motive and circumstance. You know, an assassin would use one thing and an enraged cuckold another.”
I asked Mr. Parker what he thought it was that readers like so much about murder mysteries.
“I think what people respond to is that most mysteries are pretty straightforward, honestly presented novels. Generally, they strive for economy of language and style, which, I think, people often respond to. People also like the gamesmanship of a mystery. The old ‘whodunit’ is fun. Most readers like that. People also like the fact that most mysteries, not all, but most mysteries, are set in the here and now and the readers are getting a quick take on what’s going on in their world. They don’t need to labor back into Victorian London and get their bearings to follow a story. It took place in 2003 in San Diego or 2003 in Seattle, or whatever it is, and it’s contemporary. I think readers like that.”
Cold Pursuit’s opening shows McMichael’s entry onto the murder scene. “He stepped down into the trophy room, smelling blood and feces and cigar smoke.... He walked over and looked down on the body of Pete Braga, slouched almost out of the right-hand chair. Braga was wearing a smoke-gray satin robe. He had slid down, legs buckling on the floor, his back and head flat on the chair seat. His arms dangled over the rests, hands relaxed. His head was bathed in blood and the top crushed in the middle — skin and hair and bone seeming to fall in upon themselves. His face was a bloody mask of surprise and confusion, eyes open and still reflecting light. On the hardwood floor to the left of the chair stood a pond of blood littered with pale debris and a short club with a leather loop at the end of the handles. McMichael felt the hair on his neck stand up.”
“Why,” I asked, “do readers enjoy all the blood and guts?”
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about it a lot. The best I can come up with is it’s the same reason that people have to rubberneck on the 5. They have to look at the wreck. Even if it’s horrible. I wonder sometimes if it is a way to experience that thing, many times removed from actually having to experience it. You can indulge your curiosity for what it would be like to see a guy with his brains splattered all over a room by reading the opening chapter of that book, but you never have really to go there and do it.”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “this reading of murder mysteries is a way to ‘unscare’ yourself — murder after murder — by incremental repetition.”
“Maybe it is. Maybe it toughens you up for life in the 21st Century.” “With writers of mysteries,” I said, “like you, say, or Andrew Vachss, there seems an interest in defense of the defenseless. This same interest seems to guide the really good homicide detectives too. In fact, homicide detectives and mystery writers seem to be people who are moved by the plight of those who are powerless, and no one’s more powerless, in a way, than a dead person. There’s also a keen sense of vengeance at work with homicide detectives and some mystery writers, but it is more an avenging than revenge. What do you make of this?” “Good points and true. Vachss is certainly outraged about what happens to children. I have a small series going, I’ve written three books about a female homicide detective named Merci Rayborn. She really does see it as a kind of vengeance to get the killer. Sometimes it might cloud her judgment, make her do the wrong thing. Her favorite word at a murder scene is always ‘waste.’ What a waste of a life. I guess there is no one with less power than a murdered person, so, yes, we’re avenging the defenseless.”
I’m always impressed when men do a good job of dressing their women characters. I asked Mr. Parker if he found this aspect of writing difficult.
He does. “I was just reading an e-mail telling me the difference between a blazer and a sport jacket. Quote, ‘Men wear sport coats, women wear blazers or jackets.’ I put this character in a sport jacket and this lady who e-mailed me is saying, 'Don’t ever do that again.’ ”
I confessed that when I read mysteries I often identify with or feel bad for the villain. Did Mr. Parker ever do this?
He did. Yes. “Sometimes. A lot of the bad guys that I’ve written about in my books have been guys who are turned bad by circumstances around them. They’re not really monstrous people, they’re certainly not psychopaths or certainly not sadists. They’re just caught in the wrong life. So yeah, I feel sorry for those guys. ‘There but for the grace of God,’ you know.”
I don’t want to give hints to readers as to how Mr. Parker’s book ends. As I read, I thought one after another of the characters might have done it. But I had to ask, and did, if Mr. Parker knew when he started Cold Pursuit who Pete Braga’s killer would turn out to be.
“I was pretty sure. But there were a couple of different ways to go. I was not absolutely positive until I had to get positive about it. I toyed with the idea of having Victor become some sort of avenging, you know, angel against his own father. But it wouldn’t work for me. And then I thought about making it strictly a politically inspired murder.
“But in the end I knew who I wanted it to be. I set the book up for it to be that person and it was a tough one to pull off. I hope that it’s convincing”
Mr. Parker has written scenes that take place at the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing. How did he learn about Tijuana?
“That was fun. I spent a little time down there in Tijuana kind of banging around and shopping and night-clubbing and goofing around when I was young. So the atmosphere and the frenzy and hectic atmosphere and the loud, surreal presence of TJ is something that I’ve experienced more than once.” Suspicions of drug-running are one plot element in Cold Pursuit. As to how he did that, Mr. Parker said, “I pretty much patterned that on what I knew about basic drug-running. Because that’s where the story began for me. It wasn’t until a little later in the book, as I got into it, I realized that I did not want to do a conventional drug-smuggling, and that’s where I thought, ‘Well, shoot, what else might they be bringing across the border?’ ”
Cold Pursuit features some fast-moving gunplay. I asked how Mr. Parker went about writing action of this kind.
“I try to visualize the scene and then write what I see. Fifteen years ago I would have written that scene far differently. When I was young and starting off, I tended to approach action as kind of like something Walter Hill, the movie director, would come up with or Sam Peckinpah would do. I would go for the long and lyrical, where the entire paragraph is one long sentence where the violence becomes dreamy and extended and slow motion.
“But I’ve reversed that. I’ve done a 180. My current take on violence is that it happens real quickly and surprisingly and never quite elegantly and that it’s always kind of a jagged surprise to everybody around. So I try to do it real short and let the words evoke, rather than try to describe everything that happens. Action is hard to write. You think that the car chase that Hollywood always seems to come up with is the easy part, but it’s not. It’s hard to write.”
While he’s working on a book, Mr. Parker spends most of the day in his tin-roofed office behind the house. On the office walls hang paintings not unlike paintings that figure in Cold Pursuit. Matt Parker, Mr. Parker’s brother, one of the people to whom Cold Pursuit is dedicated, did these paintings. Mr. Parker’s put up a collection of fishing pictures and pictures of the boys and Rita. He’s got the photo of himself at the Edgar Awards ceremony, “staring,” he laughs, “at the convention chicken.” He’s tacked up a post-card that shows an old Underwood typewriter from which red flames shoot. “Michael Connelly sent that to me when Red Light made the L.A. Times bestseller list at number one.” Then there’s an old sepia-tone photograph of Hemingway. He’s crouched in high grass, his Labrador retriever by him. He cradles a shotgun. When I ask what kind of shotgun Hemingway’s holding, Mr. Parker tells me, “It looks like a big 12-gauge. I think he’s probably waiting for a duck to come down. I like this shot because he’s got his glasses on, he’s kind of hunched over, it’s not a real composed shot — it’s candid.”
Mr. Parker goes out to his office at six in the morning and ends work about five in the afternoon. Not all that time is spent tap-tap-tapping at his computer — these days, a new Dell. There’s e-mail and bill-paying and fan letters to answer and reading and research. Although Mr. Parker confesses to a bit of what he calls “headbanging” and frustration when he’s writing, for the most part he’s a writer who doesn’t suffer frequent writer’s block. Indeed, as a writer, he doesn’t seem to suffer much at all. “Even when it’s not going well, it’s interesting. You’re trying to fix it, you’re trying to find your way around the problem, and it’s interesting to watch yourself from the third person. You know, like, ‘Here goes Parker to work. How is he going to solve this problem?’ ” Mr. Parker laughed, “I think I’m fascinating, sometimes, when I watch myself do this stuff.”
As to what Mr. Parker’s working on now, book number 12, he said, “I’ve got a 1960s book going. I’m 250 pages into that right now. I’m having a ball with it. It’s taking me back into my childhood and my roots and those troubled times in the 1960s. I think in a lot of ways those were important years. They were pivotal. It’s fun to go back and try to capture some of that. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve never set a book in the past in any way, so I’m making a huge stretch for me.” “What advice do you give people about writing a good first draft? Or a bad first draft? But just getting from page one to the end?”
“I think it’s important to pay close attention when you’re writing that first draft and trying to make it as good as you can. You don’t want to go out to an agent or an editor, or to anyone, with anything but your best effort.
“Maybe this is contradictory, but I think that, especially for a young writer, that they should be especially attuned to the idea of finishing. They should always finish. Don’t bog down in rewrite after rewrite. And research after research. And massaging things to death. I think it’s important to finish and I think it’s workable to write fast. I’m kind of a fan of writing fast, as long as you make a deal with yourself that when you’re done, you’re going to go back and do what it takes to bring it up to the next level.”
“To bring it up to code.”
“Yes, to bring it up to code. But first drafts are the hardest. They are, for me anyway, the most fun. I like to put things out there and see where they’re going to go and watch things come out. It’s exciting. Whereas the post-first-draft stuff, the revisions, that for me is more difficult. It’s the logical, structural side of writing coming in — the logical side, as opposed to the side where you’re first writing and you’re allowing yourself to go into things that you’re not quite sure where they’re going to lead.” “What does your boy Tommy think you do for money?”
“He knows that I write. I show him my book covers. He’s neither impressed nor not impressed, but he knows what I do out here in this funny little building.”
“Is he quiet when he comes out to visit you?” “He’s pretty quiet. He knows this is the hush-hush room.”
— Judith Moore
- Laguna Heat (1985)
- Little Saigon (1988) Pacific Beat (1991)
- Summer of Fear (1993)
- The Triggermans Dance (1996)
- Where Serpents Lie (1998)
- The Blue Hour(1999) Red Light (2000)
- Silent Joe (2001)
- Black Water (2002)
- Cold Pursuit (2003)
T. Jefferson Parker will be reading on April 12 from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. at Mysterious Galaxy (7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd). See his appearance schedule at www. tjeffersonparker. com
He loved the city. Loved the curve of the Coronado Bridge and the hard optics of ocean and glass and concrete, and the stout old downtown buildings and the spikes of the big hotels by the water. He loved the busy muscle of the shipyards and the tremendous vessels of the Fifth Fleet, and the Navy installations that claimed so much of the city cities within the city, closed and self-sufficient and forbidding. He loved the bars and streets of the Gaslamp, so crowded and chaotic with pretty women on warm summer nights. He even loved the huge cemetery out on Point Loma, where his great-great uncle, killed in France in the Great War, shared a Pacific-side grave with the wife who outlived him by six decades.
Spellacy's was quiet when McMichael walked in at six that evening. Hugh stood behind the polished redwood bar, drying glasses. Four men huddled on the stools, conversing with the patient, collegial energy of drunks. McMichael's father was among them.
He drove out Silver Strand Boulevard toward Imperial Beach. The strand was in fact silver tonight beneath the storm -scrubbed sky, stars bright and close and the moon round and shiny as a hubcap.
Pete Braga's Cabrillo Star was berthed in Tuna Harbor, just a few blocks from downtown. Walking up the gangplank, McMichael knew that the ship had seen some history. She had been built of wood as a tuna clipper back in the '30s, when they still caught the big fish with poles. She had seen action in World War II along with dozens of other tuna ships requisitioned by the Navy to carry food in their freezers. She'd been converted to a seiner, a net boat after the war. Then retired when the great super-seiners took over the industry and the Cabrillo Star became nothing more than a failed tourist venue and a quaint reminder of a time that was gone.
Patricia had given him a Park Towers address and he called her on one of the house phones and she rang him into the elevator bank. Twenty-two stories up, he stepped off into a vestibule with a black marble floor and a gigantic arrangement of fresh tropical flowers.