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Authors Clue In to Orange County as a Prime Setting for Whodunits

September 28, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Meet Matt Murdock, Orange County private eye:

He's a former career soldier, a small-arms expert who was wounded in Vietnam. To help make ends meet he does carpentry work on the side. He lives above a surf shop at the foot of the Newport Beach Pier and drives a '69 Plymouth, a V-8 with dual carbs and a supercharger that boosts the horsepower to just over 500. He's a blue-collar kind of guy. He drinks Budweiser.

Murdock's not your man? Meet another Orange County private investigator. His name is Fiddler. No first name. Just Fiddler.

He lives in a vintage beach cottage in Crystal Cove, just north of Laguna Beach. He's a man of independent means, thanks to Uncle Jake, a Laguna Beach dope smuggler killed in the '60s while smuggling drugs out of Mexico. Jake left Fiddler a steamer trunk full of greasy 20-, 50- and 100-dollar bills that Fiddler's sexy investment banker ex-wife, Fiora, ran up into a respectable fortune. Fiddler is tall and rugged, a knock-about type who drives a hot '66 Shelby Cobra. As a teen-ager, he was a promising violinist.

Murdock and Fiddler ply their sometimes-lethal trade along the same coastline, but it's not clients the two rival gumshoes are vying for: it's book buyers.

Murdock is the creation of Irvine author Robert Ray, whose debut Matt Murdock mystery novel, "Bloody Murdock" (published by St. Martin's Press in August), manages to include everything from illegal cockfights in Laguna's Bluebird Canyon to murder on Coast Highway.

Extortion Plot

Fiddler surfaced last year in "Just Another Day in Paradise," the first in a series of Fiddler mysteries by A. E. Maxwell (actually the husband-wife writing team of Ann and Evan Maxwell of Laguna Niguel). In their latest, "The Frog and the Scorpion" (Doubleday), Fiddler becomes entangled in a Muslim extortion plot against a Jewish Iranian immigrant.

Murdock and Fiddler, however, are not the only heroes-for-hire nosing around Orange County's dark underbelly. They are just the latest additions to what is a small but growing trend in mystery publishing: using Orange County as the fictional scene of the crime.

Indeed, after years of being a literary backwater, a mere pit stop for fictional Los Angeles detectives, Orange County is coming into its own as a colorful setting in one of the most popular of all literary genres.

Two of the most prominent Orange County mysteries are Kem Nunn's critically acclaimed "Tapping the Source," a gritty tale published in 1984 about a desert boy who comes to Huntington Beach, where his sister has mysteriously vanished, and T. Jefferson Parker's more traditional "Laguna Heat," a stylishly written 1985 novel about a Laguna Beach homicide detective delving into the brutal murder of one of Laguna's old-guard citizens.

The number of Orange County mysteries published in the past five years is large enough to fill an entire bookshelf at the Anaheim Public Library. The ranks of Orange County sleuths now include everything from a Santa Ana female private eye named Delilah West to a roguish Costa Mesa character named Harry Gould.

And more are on the way. Parker has almost completed writing his second novel, "Little Saigon," a mystery set in Orange County's Vietnamese community, which is due out early next year. The second Matt Murdock novel will be out in March and the third Fiddler novel will hit bookstores next summer.

No Mystery

Why Orange County is providing the locale for a growing number of published novels--and untold numbers of manuscripts-in-progress--is no mystery, according to those close to the fictional crime scene.

One reason, they say, is that because of the county's burgeoning population there simply are more writers living here today than there were 20 years ago, and writers tend to write about what they know.

The other reason is, to cop a cliche, elementary: Orange County has come of age over the past two decades, having been transformed from a quiet, rural-suburban haven into what Time magazine recently described as a "high-energy, high-rolling, high-living megalopolis."

"I think what's happened is that Orange County has discovered a personality," theorizes Kevin Moore, central library manager for the Anaheim city library system and one of the leading West Coast scholars on the contemporary mystery. K

More Interesting Place

"It used to just be apple pie, motherhood, orange groves and Disneyland," Moore said. "That's all you associated with it, but I think the construction of Irvine as an independent city, the buildup of Newport Center as a financial center--looking at the cities as distinct areas with distinct personalities--has made it a much more interesting place to use as a setting."

"You know," Moore added, "there's only so many private eyes you can have pounding the streets of Los Angeles before it gets a little tiring."

Raymond Obstfeld, an Irvine novelist who teaches novel writing at Orange Coast College, agrees.

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