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Novelist Says It's Time to Unravel the Mystery of Modern Orange County

June 09, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

It is with a great sense of nostalgia that author Elizabeth C. Ward remembers the Newport Beach she moved to from Westwood in 1969, "back in the days before yuppies and nouveau preppies."

"It was like living in a time warp in some sense," says Ward, 52, who grew up in Pasadena. "I had come down to Newport in the summer in the '40s and it was very much the same (in 1969) as then. It had a small-town atmosphere, a sense of friendliness and camaraderie. We weren't anonymous like when you get into a bigger community. And there was a conglomeration of old characters then. It wasn't convenient to live here. You did it because you loved the sea and loved this way of life."

"A Nice Little Beach Town," (St. Martin's Press), Ward's new mystery set in Orange County, is about what happened to Newport Beach over the next two decades.

It's about big money, greed and a vanishing way of life as symbolized by Sven, the crusty old fisherman who is found shot to death in his skiff adrift in the marshes of the upper bay. Sven's tenant, a high school English teacher who becomes the chief suspect, sets out to solve his friend's murder and, in so doing, gets caught up in the "dark forces" at work in the seaside town.

"It's the story of what happens when any town, small and friendly and comfortable, suddenly becomes a status symbol and all the rich and powerful come down en masse with smog and traffic and a new set of values--they're more materialistic and more success oriented--and then try to transform it into a city just like they left behind," she said.

Ward, who wrote "A Nice Little Beach Town" under the name E.C. Ward--"I wanted to be neuter since I am a woman and the hero is a man"--said she started writing the book as a "protest."

"Now I feel it's a kind of a lament for a way of life that is almost gone. There are many wonderful things about what's coming (to Newport Beach), but this was just a look at what was here."

Although Ward captures the flavor of Newport Beach--from the Balboa ferry to the harbor Christmas boat parade--she chose to call her beach town White's Bay.

She said she originally planned to call it Newport Beach but decided not to because she was critical of the changes that had taken place in the city and "I didn't want to offend people." Besides, she said, "as I went along I realized this was not just happening to Newport Beach. It was happening to many, many cities everywhere. I wanted (White's Bay) to be a symbol."

"A Nice Little Beach Town"--"a likable and urbane story, mayhem notwithstanding," according to Times critic Charles Champlin's recent assessment--is Ward's third published book (all of them mysteries).

Ward, who earned a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Stanford University, wrote television and movie scripts in the '60s. She sold a TV script to the old "Zane Grey Theater" and had a movie script optioned but never produced. But she abandoned screen writing in 1970, "after I found out what fun it was to write novels."

Ward hired a baby-sitter every Friday to take care of her two small children while she wrote her first book, "Laguna Contracts," a 1973 paperback mystery for Pyramid. The book's hero is an artist-mystery writer-turned private eye whose investigation of a hippie murder leads him to uncover a contract murder ring.

Her next book was "Coast Highway One" (Walker), a hardback 1983 mystery, in which a UC Irvine professor finds the body of one of his female students on his patio in Laguna Beach and travels up the coast in search of the murdered girl's past.

Explaining the lengthy gaps between books, Ward says good-naturedly: "I was busy writing literary novels that never sold."

Two years ago, Ward returned to what she does best: writing mysteries.

"I love the suspense," she said. "I love the idea that the detective is a compiler of the minutiae of other people's lives. So he, in a way, is a reporter of the local scene."

As an Orange County mystery writer using Orange County locales, Ward's mystery-writing private eye predates by a decade A.E. Maxwell's Laguna Beach-based investigator Fiddler, Robert Ray's Newport Beach-based private eye Matt Murdock and Maxine O'Callaghan's Santa Ana private detective Delilah West--and a handful of other Orange County-based mysteries.

Ward will deliver a talk on Orange County mystery writers at a book signing from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Rizzoli International Bookstore in South Coast Plaza. Joining her for the signing will be A.E. Maxwell (actually the wife-and-husband writing team of Ann and Evan Maxwell of Laguna Niguel), whose latest Fiddler mystery is "The Art of Survival."

Ward said she believes that "we're on the threshold of something new in mysteries from Orange County. I think we're going to have to finally cut our ties with (fictional detective Philip) Marlow and Los Angeles and create a new kind of a detective because Orange County doesn't have those 'mean streets' " as classically portrayed by Marlow's creator, Raymond Chandler.

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