Matt Murdock, Robert Ray's hard-boiled yet soft-centered Newport Beach private eye, is back.
In "Merry Christmas, Murdock" (Delacorte Press; $16.95), the Irvine mystery writer's fourth Murdock outing, the detective is hired to investigate the hit-and-run accident of a U.S. senator's teen-age daughter at Xanadu, "a combination mall, business complex, convention hotel and pleasure circus" off the San Diego Freeway.
The investigation leads the bearded Vietnam vet and former cop "to the heart of Orange County's moneyed elite."
As usual, Ray is doing a string of local book signings and sending out postcards announcing his new book. The self-described guerrilla book-marketer's mailing list includes everyone from booksellers across the country to anyone who has ever given him a business card since the publication of the first Murdock mystery three years ago.
But this time around, Ray's promotional time is limited--at least in Orange County.
By Christmas, Ray and his wife, Margot, will have moved out of their home in Irvine and into their new house in Seattle where Margot --after 23 years at UC Irvine--has been hired as director of personnel at the University of Washington.
Ray, who has taught fiction writing part time at Chapman College in Orange the past 1 1/2 years and served as director of its annual writers conference, said he is looking forward to moving into their new hilltop home with a view of Puget Sound.
But he added that it is with mixed feelings that he bids farewell to Orange County after eight years.
"The traffic is driving me crazy," said Ray, 54, in his Texas Panhandle drawl. "I mean it's just driving me crazy. And Seattle is very attractive: It's real pretty, and Margot has family there."
Nevertheless, he said, "I've made some real good friends here, and I've gotten to know the bookstores: Book Carnival in Orange, the Bookstore in Irvine, Upchurch-Brown and Fahrenheit 451 in Laguna. They (the owners) are just really nice people. They work hard, and they do their best for local authors."
Ray said he will also miss Costa Mesa author Jean Femling, whom he met at Fictionaires, the elite Orange County writing workshop. "She has helped me the most with my editing and reading of manuscripts and stuff. She's a great editor. The other thing I'm going to miss is the Chapman students. I really like to teach, and they're a good group and a lot of fun."
Does Ray's move to the far reaches of the rainy North mean a change of venue for Murdock, who lives above a Newport Beach surf shop?
"I don't know what's going to happen to Murdock," Ray admitted. "He's sort of in limbo now."
Actually, Ray said he has already written part of his next Murdock mystery, and it is set in Orange County.
"It's just sitting there waiting while I finish the new book, which is about money laundering in Miami and the Caribbean," he said.
The untitled new book is a mainstream thriller he has been working on for a year. "I can usually do a book in nine months," he said. "But this is bigger and has more characters. What really slowed me down is the multiple points of view." The Murdock books are narrated in first person.
Ray said he is following the advice of his Los Angeles literary agent, Ben Kamsler, in creating different lead characters for each book. In so doing, Ray said, he'll have more chances of selling work to the movies.
"If you have a series character you only sell it once, so if you have 10 books with 10 different characters, there's the possibility of 10 different sales," he said.
That's not to say Kamsler wants him to abandon Murdock: "He just wants at least every other book to be something other than Murdock," said Ray, who has donated his papers--"old drafts and notes for books and stuff, some of them got written and some didn't"--to the UC Irvine library.
As a mystery writer, Ray said, "the chances of really hitting it big are slim. There are a lot of private eyes around and the private eye field is real crowded. Estimates now say there are 300 male private eyes a year published and 50 woman private investigators. And that's just a lot. That doesn't count the back-list of MacDonald, Parker and Chandler and all those guys.
"The other thing with Chandler and those guys, when you write a private eye you're going to be compared with those guys. It's real tough. You've got to try to do as good as Chandler. You're just in his shadow all the time."
As one of a handful of local writers to surface in the '80s with mystery novels set in Orange County, Ray said Orange County "is not as ripe as it was because a lot more people are doing it, and I just heard Joe Wambaugh (a Newport Beach resident) has done one set in Orange County, so it's not nearly as fertile as it was."
In moving to Seattle, Ray will be joining novelist and New Yorker short-story writer Michael Chabon, a former Laguna Beach resident, who moved to that city last summer. (Chabon had a short story with a Laguna setting in The New Yorker in November.)