Novel #1 for 2006: California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker.
California Girl is a mystery with a bit of suspense set in the mid to late 1960s in Orange County, California. Obviously, Parker takes advantage of this locale and uses the exploding drug scene to make for a very colorful setting. He does it tastefully, though, and does an excellent job of fairly portraying all sides of the issues of the day.
The story centers around the murder of a young woman. The extremely beautiful and disturbed Janelle Vonn, who is found beheaded in an abandoned orange packing house. Parker throws out some red herrings, even includes Timothy Leary as a possible suspect at one point. That’s another thing I loved about the book. Parker includes guest appearances by Richard Nixon, Timothy Leary, and even Charles Manson in his pre-Helter Skelter period. One of our protags (there are three, but one at the center) even gets into a bit of a brawl with Manson outside a bar. Not a smart move, had he known the future.
Parker uses a style in this book in which he uses short, choppy sentences, leaving out the pronouns (ie. Andy fired up the car. Drove toward the beach. Sun setting low over the Pacific.) It made for a story that moved quickly, although at some points I got a bit tired of it.
The best part of the book for me was the historical touches. I was just a baby in the late 60s, but I like reading about times close to my childhood. Parker takes every opportunity to mention gas prices, cool new cars, etc. His main protag, Nick Becker, is a new homicide detective, and uses the latest in forensics to nail his killer. In 1968, it wasn’t much. Nick is a visionary, though, and sees forensics and profiling as the way of the future. Obviously, Parker was able to gift his character with this great foresight, having written the novel in the 21st century, but it was still fun.
As far as the mystery element, I wasn’t surprised by the identity of the killer. That didn’t bother me, because the rest of the story was so well done.
There is some explitive language, though kept to a minimum. The violence isn’t graphic and there are no sex scenes (which must have been tough to leave out given the place and period). I highly recommend California Girl to any aspiring mystery writer or anyone who just loves a good read.