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Turning to the First Person : In 'Summer of Fear,' T. Jefferson Parker draws from painful personal experience to shade his mystery about an Orange County serial killer.

July 01, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — Russ Monroe, the ex-cop-turned-crime-writer in T. Jefferson Parker's new mystery about an Orange County serial killer, lives in a house on stilts on the steep east slope of Laguna Canyon.

Parker modeled Monroe's home after his own house perched high above the rustic canyon where he has lived for four years. But that isn't the only thing Parker has in common with the protagonist of "Summer of Fear."

Isabella, Monroe's 28-year-old wife of five years--"the truest love" of his life--is battling a malignant brain tumor. And in the novel's most moving passages, Parker describes how Isabella is dealing with the cancer that has affected her speech and appearance--and her relationship with her 40-year-old husband.

Parker's wife of three years--Catherine Anne (Cat) Parker, a popular Orange County rock 'n' roll singer--died in 1992 at age 34 after a two-year struggle with brain cancer.

"I realized early on that I was going to (have to decide whether or not to) write about Cat and me and our experience," said Parker, 39, who came up with the idea for "Summer of Fear" in 1991 while vacationing in Solvang, one of the last trips he would take with his wife.

Parker wrote 50 pages of the novel before letting his wife read them. And it was, he recalled during an interview in his home last week, "a really emotional experience for her."

"She was upset, and I said, 'Well, think about it for a few days because this is the story that I would like to tell, but if you don't want me to, then I'm not going to write it.' She thought about it and said, 'It's going to be hard to read, but go ahead and write it.' "

The novel--Parker's first written in a first-person narrative--opens on a hot, humid night in Laguna Beach.

Monroe is parked in front of the sprawling hillside home of his ex-lover, Amber Mae Wilson, a woman with whom he had a relationship 20 years earlier. It's the third night in a week he's sat outside her house.

Drinking whiskey out of a silver flask inscribed to him "With all my love, Isabella," Monroe's thoughts first turn to his wife, who is sound asleep at home, her wheelchair nearby and her medications lined up within arm's reach. But, as Parker writes, Monroe tries to banish all thoughts from his mind, replacing them with memories of Amber.

Driven by anger and despair over his wife's long illness, Monroe has come to his ex-lover's house intent on "beginning a secret life" with a woman who represents "those days from our youth when the world seemed so ripe for our picking, pleased to have us aboard."

But as he debates whether to ring the bell at the front gate, Monroe sees a man come out of the front door and wipe his fingerprints off the handle of the gate. Monroe recognizes the man--the chief of homicide for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, who had been briefly married to Amber years ago.

Investigating inside the house, Monroe finds the body of his former lover, the victim of a ritualistic killing that resembles other recent Orange County murders.

Publishers Weekly calls "Summer of Fear" (St. Martin's Press; $19.95) "a sure-handed narrative notable for taut pacing and plot twists that keep the reader wondering whom to trust. (Monroe's) desperate first-person narrative voice is convincing and often gripping."

St. Martin's Press, which published Parker's three previous Orange County mysteries--"Laguna Heat," "Little Saigon" and "Pacific Beat"--has given "Summer of Fear" an impressive 100,000 first printing and has begun a major advertising and promotional campaign.

On the Fourth of July, the novel's recent arrival in bookstores will be trumpeted with airplanes flying over East and West Coast beaches trailing banners reading: "The heat is not the only killer this summer. Read 'Summer of Fear.' "

Inspired by Southern California serial killer Richard Ramirez--the so-called Night Stalker, who murdered 14 victims in early morning attacks in the mid-'80s--Parker said he tried to capture that atmosphere of fear created by Ramirez in his book.

"I remember how scary it was and how hot it was, and I started thinking about that as being a good natural correlative to what was going on with me," said Parker, who planned from the outset to write a novel that deals with both the randomness of violence and disease.

Indeed, only three months before his wife's brain tumor was discovered in 1989, Parker's mother died of a brain tumor.

"From my point of view, the world was like the darkest possible place, and so to write about what Cat and I were going through seemed imperative, and to have part of the story involve an out-of-control random evil that's set upon a society--in this case Orange County--it just seemed like the right combination of things," he said.

Parker acknowledged that his wife's death in January, 1992, provided more emotional gravity to his writing, although it didn't change the novel's outcome.

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