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Dancing in the Dark

T. Jefferson Parker's latest novel takes a serious twist as it examines racial tensions in Orange County. Real-life crimes entwine with the tales of a revenge-minded militia leader and a murdered reporter.

July 05, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a tour of Orange County's dark side, a bleak counterpoint to the cheery chamber of commerce image of sun, sand and Disneyland.

Piloting his Hughes 500 helicopter through the night sky, Vann Holt, the right-wing extremist of T. Jefferson Parker's new suspense novel, shines a spotlight on a yellow house in Santa Ana where a party was interrupted by a gang fight that left three dead, one of them an 11-year-old boy.

Hovering over the backyard of a home in Fullerton, he points to where three Asian high school boys buried their friend in a shallow grave--after beating him with shovels and suffocating him.

Heading over to Westminster, he points out a Little Saigon newspaper office where the Vietnamese editor was set on fire because someone didn't like his politics. Then it's down to Mission Viejo where the Nightstalker raped a woman and shot her husband in the head. And on to San Clemente, where a gang member speared a 17-year-old surfer in the head with a paint roller.

"They're all around us now," observes the fictional Holt, the white owner of an international private security firm. "The killers and the fools, the rapists and the morons, the vicious, the stupid, the ignorant and the murderous, the desperate and the furious."

None so furious as Holt, a former FBI crime buster whose 22-year-old son was shot to death by a young Latino in a Santa Ana fast-food restaurant five years earlier; Holt's wife, seated next to her son, took a bullet in the head that left her brain-damaged and paralyzed from the waist down.

Holt's grief-induced racial hatred triggers events in "The Triggerman's Dance" (Hyperion; $21.95). It's Parker's fifth Orange County-set novel in 11 years, one propelled by the themes of love, loss and the high price of vengeance.

More so than Parker's previous mystery thrillers, "The Triggerman's Dance" delves into what Parker calls "the contemporary social fabric of the county and, I think, the nation too."

Parker, who drew upon various Orange County crime cases in Vann Holt's nighttime helicopter tour, says that "there are echoes of the Freemen, Ruby Ridge and Waco--that kind of thinking--in the air, the way people hate and the way people think."

Holt is the prime suspect in the assassination of newspaper reporter Rebecca Harris, who was mistaken for the assassin's real target: a leftist columnist who had written a series of articles about the shooting that took Holt's son's life. The columnist supported the defense claim that Holt's son had raped the accused boy's aunt and that the boy shot in revenge.

In order to gather evidence against Holt in the shooting of the journalist, FBI agent Joshua Weinstein enlists reporter John Menden to infiltrate Liberty Ridge, Holt's sprawling South County estate and paramilitary training ground surrounded by a 10-foot-high electrified fence. Both men are motivated by their own need for revenge: Weinstein was Harris' fiance; Menden was her lover.

The views of Parker's right-wing antagonist undoubtedly will strike a chord among those who equate growing minority populations with rising crime. But the book also leaves the door open for a more optimistic view, Parker says.

"You can look on our county as a place that's fresh and full of opportunity for all makes and models of people. Or you can regret that fact," says Parker, 42. "That's one of the things the book is about: From one point of view the county has changed for the worse and is more dangerous, and from another point of view, it's full of opportunity and a desirous place to be."

Parker, a longtime Laguna Beach resident whose parents moved to Tustin from Los Angeles in 1959, has witnessed dramatic change in Orange County over the past several decades.

When he was growing up, Parker says, people worried less about locking their doors, and "there just seemed to be such huge freedoms then to me as a kid."

"Now there seems to be this hunched-around-the-campfire mentality of 'them or us' and 'I've got to build a wall around my community to be safe; I've got to somehow erect this barrier around my little family unit so nothing bad can happen to us.'

"I'm not sure that's totally born in reality. But people seem to believe that. There seems to be a bunker mentality."

Holt, Parker says, "is an exaggerated version of that frightened person in all of us who wants to live behind the walls of a place like Emerald Bay because once in there they think they're safe. [Holt's] racism is misplaced anger at handy targets for the things that happened to his family."

In writing his novel, Parker says, "I wanted to take a guy and victimize him ultimately--paralyze his wife and kill his son--and see what kind of hatred and anger and vengeance that would engender in him, he being a tried and true, strait-laced FBI man.

"I guess the underlying theme is how vengeance ultimately leads to the destruction of things rather than the healing of things."

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