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O'Callaghan's Delilah West Is At It Again

March 25, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer(

It wasn't been a good year for Delilah West, Maxine O'Callaghan's fictional Orange County private eye.

In February, West found a missing woman who had been described by her distraught husband as suffering from recurring bouts of amnesia. But after West told the husband where his wife was staying, he showed up at the motel and blew her away with a .357 magnum. For that, West nearly lost her investigator's license and the county threatened to charge her with being an accessory to murder.

In April, West served a subpoena to a drug dealer who straight-armed her over a stoop, resulting in a broken arm, two cracked ribs and 23 stitches in her thigh.

In May, her insurance company declared her a bad risk and canceled her policy.

In June, her car died.

In August, business was so bad that she was forced to give up her apartment and begin sleeping on the floor of her office in Santa Ana. And in December, still struggling to make ends meet, she began moonlighting as a waitress.

Now it's January and, as O'Callaghan's new Delilah West mystery opens, the down-on-her-luck private eye's fortunes still haven't improved: She is nearly run down by a black Trans Am that does hit--and kill--an old man on a rain-slick street in Santa Ana. Or so it seems. . . .

After a 7-year absence and a bit the worse for wear, Delilah West is back in "Hit and Run" (St. Martin's Press; $14.95).

West's comeback, in what Publishers Weekly calls "a funny, poignant, surprising mystery," has been a long time coming for the Mission Viejo writer who created the female detective for a short story that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 1974.

The tough-yet-feminine character didn't make her book debut until 1981 in "Death Is Forever," the first in a series of paperbacks for Raven House Mysteries. In that one, Delilah sets out to solve the murder of her husband, the other half of the West and West Detective Agency who is killed on the bluffs above Dana Point. That was followed a year later with "Run From Nightmare," in which the still-grieving widow is hired to find a young Orange County woman who vanished in a small, fictional town in Riverside County.

O'Callaghan said she always wanted to do another Delilah West mystery. In fact, "Hit and Run" was at the publishing house being edited in 1982 when Raven House's parent company, Worldwide Library, discontinued its mystery line.

But while the rights to "Hit and Run" reverted to O'Callaghan, the process took more than 2 years to complete. By then, O'Callaghan had acquired a new agent who attempted to sell "Hit and Run" as a package deal with the reprint rights to the first two books.

"It didn't really go," O'Callaghan said. "I don't know why, but it didn't. By this time, there had been a passage of time since 'Hit and Run' was written and we decided that I would rewrite it."

Although the basic story is the same, O'Callaghan said she rewrote the novel extensively.

"Hit and Run" originally was to have taken place 6 months after the action in "Run From Nightmare." But in rewriting the book, O'Callaghan updated it to take place 5 years after the death of West's husband.

"By doing that, it changed the book enormously," she said. "In particular, it changed the tone of the book. Now, she's not the grieving widow anymore and I think it let me lighten the tone. I think there is a lot more humor in the third book."

The rewrite paid off. St. Martin's Press, the first publishing house to receive the manuscript, snapped it up.

Kevin Moore, manager of the Anaheim central library and a leading West Coast scholar on the contemporary mystery, is pleased to see Delilah West's comeback in "Hit and Run," which also marks the character's first time in hardback.

"I think it's better than the paperback (books)," Moore said. "She's tightened up the writing and it's more descriptive, and I think her handle on the character is better. You get a better sense of the person. Delilah West is not a superwoman. She's feminine and realistic and her abilities match the skills and abilities of an ordinary person. I've read a lot of the other female (mystery) writers and I think at this point, Maxine compares favorably to Linda Barnes, Marcia Muller, Julie Smith and Sue Dunlap."

If O'Callaghan has grown as a writer since the last Delilah West mystery in 1982, it is because she hasn't stopped writing.

In that time, she had two thrillers ("The Bogeyman" and "Dark Visions") and a romance novel ("Dangerous Charade") published. A longtime member and current president of Fictionaires, an elite Orange County writing workshop, O'Callaghan gives credit to the 25-member group "for my development as a writer."

In the years since Delilah West was last seen plying the mean streets of Orange County, two other fictional private investigators have appeared on the scene: Robert Ray's Newport Beach-based Matt Murdock and A.E. Maxwell's Fiddler, who works out of his beach cottage north of Laguna Beach.

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