Is San Diego like Chinatown?

“I think a writer can window-dress a novel with headlines”

1800 tons of nuclear waste being stored under the sand at San Onofre?
  • 1800 tons of nuclear waste being stored under the sand at San Onofre?
  • Photograph by D Ramey Logan/Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Lethem, whose Motherless Brooklyn has got to be one of the only detective novels to snag a National Book Critics Circle Award, liked Fallbrook author T. Jefferson Parker’s The Last Good Guy enough to blurb it, writing, “Parker draws the classical hard-boiled detective story out of its mythic past and into our contemporary landscape.” It’s significant that he calls the story hard-boiled and not the detective, because while Parker’s tale is solid all through, his hero — young ex-Marine and widower Roland Ford — is more “medium-boiled,” as he puts it. His feelings are always sneaking up and clubbing him over the heart: for his dead wife, for his dead and wounded fellow vets and friends, and for the desperate young woman who hires him to find her younger sister. Perhaps that’s one part of dragging things out of the mythic past.

Another part is that “contemporary landscape” Parker uses for a setting. “I think a writer can window-dress a novel with headlines,” he says. “But what I’m trying to do is make local lore the threads from which the story’s fabric is woven. It’s an ongoing adventure to keep an eye on what’s going on, to see what strikes me and, over time, forces its way into my consciousness — and then into my books. The idea of 18,000 tons of nuclear waste being storied under the sand at San Onofre? That gets your attention. You want to put that into a book — not to titillate the reader, but as a meaningful part of things.” (Kiss Me Deadly, anyone?) “Ditto San Diego County’s long history with white supremacist groups, from Tom Metzger here in Fallbrook to Neuman Britton in Escondido. I’ve been watching those people for decades, and I’ve gotten them under my skin. It wasn’t too hard to splll them out.” And because he’s been paying attention, Parker knows that such folk “aren’t always knuckle-draggers. They can be well spoken and well read and intelligent. I tried to capture some of that.”

Of course, Jake can’t really ever forget it, can he?

Of course, Jake can’t really ever forget it, can he?

Metzger and Britton may be history these days, but Parker says their story is “absolutely right now,” and he makes his case in proper literary fashion, cannily setting them against a quiet subplot about a teenage Salvadoran, on the run from MS-13 and living in one of Ford’s rental casitas. (Today’s SoCal PI needs a secondary revenue stream.) But what’s just as much “right now” is what gets Ford mixed up in this mess: a missing 14-year-old who may be the target of a wealthy man with rampant hungers and a desire to repopulate the world in his image. (As I write this, the news is awash in talk of Jeffrey Epstein: pedophile, sex offender, alleged sex trafficker, and now suicide.) That aspect was just (un)happy accident, an attempted look back that wound up spotlighting present perversions. The twisted relastionship at the story’s heart “is more than a nod to the movie Chinatown,” explains Parker, “it’s like Chinatown, which moved me hugely when I was young. The corruption of innocence is the great black sin that overhangs this book, the same way it overhangs that movie. I’ve always wanted to try to capture a similar sense of what a great loss that innocence can be, and how easily it can be taken away.”

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