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A First-Time Author Finds Crime Does Pay : T. Jefferson Parker Tries the Murder Route for a Mystery Novel Set in Orange County

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.

It's on Laguna Canyon Road that homicide detective Tom Shephard drove 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 a thousand dollars 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.

Hometown Boy

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, he's seeing a therapist for having accidentally killed a boy in a police shoot-out in Los Angeles.

But if Shephard thinks his life will be serene in the peaceful seaside community, his respite is shattered once Laguna's old-guard citizens start turning up torched 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.

It was on a recent serene and warm Southern California summer evening that Parker, cool and calm at 31, sat sipping a glass of ice water on the small patio of his modest one-bedroom apartment. His residence is 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.

But he still had ample reason to feel as content as his fat calico cat, Samantha, who padded lazily across the patio into 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 brown-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.

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."

Not a Hard-Boiled Fan

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

Regarding the favorable trade review of his novel from Kirkus Reviews, which referred to him as being "cut from the same cloth as Chandler," Parker acknowledged that "it's extremely flattering, but kind of embarrassing too. I mean, this guy (Chandler) was awesome."

While admitting he set out to write "Laguna Heat" for commercial reasons, Parker said he also felt the novel would be "a good way to get into self-exploration: to explore the idea that people have to take good, hard, solid looks at themselves to remain true to themselves."

In the novel, Detective Shephard is "forced to investigate himself," Parker said. "I was intrigued with the idea that, as a professional detective, he would have to investigate this murder, and later on in the book his professional obligations become personal obligations, in that he's investigating his family, his friends, his past."

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