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The Writer's Craft: Denise Hamilton on 'Damage Control'

A political sex scandal 'is a topic that is eternal,' says the thriller's author.

September 04, 2011|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Author Denise Hamilton.
Author Denise Hamilton. (Blake Little, Simon and…)

Denise Hamilton knows Los Angeles and mystery stories: She's the editor of "Los Angeles Noir" and its sequel and once covered the city as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She's stepped aside from her Eve Diamond mystery series to write "Damage Control," due to be released Tuesday, about a thirtysomething crisis consultant with her first big case — a senator's aide has been found murdered — that has ties to her past.

At the heart of the story is a relationship between Maggie Silver and Annabel Paxton, who was her best friend in high school. But 15 years have gone by and they're just reconnecting.

What I wanted to establish up front was the intensely close relationship that these two teenage girls had. For me, in high school, everything was so raw, the stakes were so high. Teenage girls spend every spare minute together: They eat the same thing, do their homework together, obsess over the same music and the lyrics. These things have this almost totemic, talismanic quality. This relationship was so intense that when a bad thing happens to them, of course it's going to shatter all of that, it's going to leave them haunted.

Something bad happens to them at a beach party.

I grew up in L.A. going to the beach and beach parties with friends. I always had conflicted feelings about the beach and beach culture, and the shadows and darkness that lay behind it. "Surf noir" is the term that people bandy about. Kem Nunn's "Tapping the Source" is an amazing book, about the dark, druggy side of hedonistic beach culture. The beach is so physically beautiful, the waves and white sand; but as a crime writer you're thinking about used rubbers buried in the sand, hypodermics, skin cancer, "roofies."

Intoxicating substances play a part in the book, but not in the classic sense of the private detective with a bottle in the bottom drawer.

I've been fascinated by Adderall. I had read about how it was extremely common on college dorms and it was the "smart drug." Someone like Maggie Silver, she wouldn't be an alcoholic — she would be way too concerned about losing control. She wouldn't be doing cocaine or smoking pot. But Adderall is legal, and it would hone her perceptions, make her very focused. It seemed like the perfect drug for a young white-collar employee who was looking to make a name for herself. Not that I'm advocating it in any way, God knows. It was a good character flaw to give her.

Why did you make her a crisis consultant?

I wanted someone who would have access to the sources of power, who would be a person who was in that world and yet not of it. I had some interviews with some crisis management people. Do you have to believe your client is innocent? What if they did it, how do you deal with it? At the time, at the L.A. Times and newspapers all over the country, people were losing their jobs. A lot of my former colleagues have gone to work in public relations. That's a path not taken for me. How would I handle jumping over to what journalists have often called "the dark side"? I'm not knocking the industry — there's plenty of wonderful, smart, upstanding people in PR.

When I was writing the book, the Tiger Woods scandal was going on, and John Edwards had fathered a child with Rielle Hunter, the blond videographer that was on his staff. I was seeing what their representatives said to the press. I was fascinated by how they dealt with those scandals as they emerged. Then when the book was ready to go to press, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child, and I thought, "Wow, this topic, a political sex scandal, is a topic that is eternal!"

So would you call this a surf noir, a detective story, a political thriller?

Ultimately I wrote a political thriller about a political sex scandal, but the heart of it is the relationship between the two girls. It wasn't so much that Maggie Silver was going to find out who did it; Maggie Silver was going to be living her life and trying to keep her job and balancing on a tightrope on top of a swimming pool filled with sharks, and she was blindfolded, and she had to step very, very carefully because there were so many dangers and pitfalls.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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