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Writer Brings Murder Close to Home

September 05, 1985|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

T. Jefferson Parker passes by the scene of the crime every day while driving through picturesque Laguna Canyon between his home in Laguna Beach and his job in Irvine.

Homicide Detective Tom Shephard drove down Laguna Canyon Road that early August morning after Tim Algernon's body was discovered--his face and body burned beyond recognition, a blackened rock protruding from his forehead and more than $1,000 in bills stuffed down his throat.

Detective Shephard and victim Algernon are characters in "Laguna Heat" (St. Martin's Press, $15.95), a colorful mystery-thriller set in Orange County.

And T. Jefferson Parker, a former Orange County journalist known less grandiosely to newspaper readers--and his friends--as Jeff Parker, is its author.

Parker's introspective hero, Tom Shephard, is a hometown boy who has returned to Laguna Beach as the new--and sole--member of the Police Department's homicide division. Life hasn't been easy for Shephard of late: He's not only suffering the emotional aftermath of a divorce, but he's seeing a therapist for having accidentally killed a boy in a shoot-out in LA.

But if Shephard thinks his life will be serene in the peaceful seaside community, his respite is shattered once Laguna's old-guard citizens begin turning up burned to death, and his investigation leads him from the super-rich confines of Newport Beach to the gritty streets of Santa Ana--and a confrontation with his own family's past.

Hailed by Dust-Jacket Quotes

Dust-jacket quotes hail Parker's just-published first novel as being "the debut of an expert," a "wonderful story," one that "crackles with tension and excitement." Robert B. Parker, author of the popular "Spenser" series of mystery novels and no relation to T. Jefferson Parker, says: "Laguna Heat" is "terrific: strong, tough, funny; with a sense of humanity and a fine eye for the telling detail."

First Bad Review

But the first major newspaper review of the novel--by The Times' Carolyn See--was far less enthusiastic.

Although upset by See's mixed review, Parker observed: "The jury is definitely still out as far as reviews are concerned."

Actually, Parker, 31, appeared to be taking his first critical jab in stride, good-naturedly explaining that he has been fielding numerous phone calls from members of his writer's workshop group who have been calling to "commiserate" with him about the review.

And despite the patentedly warm Southern California summer evening, Parker was cool and calm, sipping a glass of ice water on the small patio of his modest one-bedroom apartment, a former vacation cottage built in the '20s at the foot of a hill not far from the Laguna Beach police station where Parker's fictional homicide detective works.

Casually clad in blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, Parker was unwinding after a day of work as a technical editor in the Irvine office of Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp. Just that afternoon he and his co-workers in the air defense division had learned that the project they were working on, the controversial Sgt. York anti-aircraft gun, had been canceled and that they probably would be laid off.

Reason to Feel Content

It wasn't exactly turning out to be Parker's week.

But he still had ample reason to feel as content as his fat calico cat, Samantha, who padded lazily across the patio and through the open kitchen door.

After all, Parker has finally joined the ranks of "published author," a dream five years--and six drafts--in the making. Hollywood also has come a-calling with offers to translate "Laguna Heat" onto the screen.

"It's really thrilling to me; it just feels good to have everything happen," said Parker, who treated himself to a word processor with part of the "modest" advance he received for his novel.

Tanned, trim and sandy-haired with a penchant for wearing stylish clothes, Parker's classically Southern California appearance belies the world of torture, murder and dark secrets that cuts through the picture-post-card setting of "Laguna Heat" like one of the proverbial Santa Ana winds that inevitably blows through his and other novels set in Raymond Chandler country.

First Attempt in 1978

Parker gives the impression that he'd be more at home writing a lighter tale, one set amid Orange County's fun-in-the-sun beach crowd. As it turns out, his first attempt at writing a novel in 1978 had just that sort of setting.

"It was a sloppily written manuscript copy about a professional surfer in Newport Beach," he said, adding with a smile that "I kind of knew in my heart-of-hearts it wasn't really publishable."

Parker showed the manuscript to one editor, a "buddy" of his, "who liked it, but told me nobody was interested in surfing. He said, 'Write something people are interested in.' "

Parker grinned: "So I went to murder and mayhem."

Although he said he has read "everything Raymond Chandler ever wrote," Parker admitted that "I've never really been a passionate, hard-boiled detective-novel fan."

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