T. Jefferson Parker

"California Girl"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 7 , 2004)

"Listen to me, Nick. Everything we thought about Janelle Vonn was wrong."

California Girl opens with two brothers discussing an event that happened thirty-six years earlier. One is telling the other that maybe they were wrong. This is a brief conversation without much reference to anything. Just two brothers who are very familiar with the subject matter at hand. We, of course, are left to piece what exactly they were "wrong" about until the end of the story.

The narration then takes us back to 1954 where we meet the four Becker brothers getting ready to rumble with the three Vonn brothers out at the SunBlesst Orange packing house in Tustin, California. Andy, the youngest is not supposed to be part of the fight. David the oldest tries to negotiate their way out. No avail. Technically the fault for the fight lies with Clay who meanly knocked a new hat off one of the Vonn brother's head. The fight is chaotic and with the help of young Andy, the Becker brothers win. After the fight is over, the two Vonn sisters appear from over the hill of the orange grove. Lynnette is throwing rocks at them, but Janelle Vonn, the youngest, is armed with oranges, giving the impression that she's the baby sister of the SunBlesst California Girl, a dark-haired beauty. The truth is she is happy that someone has beat up her brothers.

None of the Becker brothers, ever forget this first meeting with the five-year-old girl, nor the next. Later, that evening Max and Monica Becker drive their four sons over to the Vonn house to force their sons to apologize for the fight. Here Nick notices Janelle again, this time "in a white dancer's tutu that hung almost to her knees, clunked across the floor in her cowboy boots with a small guitar slung over one shoulder. She had the same inquisitive look she'd had out in the orange grove, and one eye swollen shut and blackening."

The Becker and Vonn family lives intersect again in 1960 when all the brothers are home for the family Thanksgiving dinner. David is an ordained minister; Clay is learning foreign languages and with the help of the family friend Senator Roger Stulz, he is already a new recruit for the CIA; Nick is a cop and recently married with a first baby a month away; and Andy is a reporter obsessed with his first love. Tragically, Mrs. Vonn has just committed suicide; David decides the Christian thing to do is to invite Karl Vonn and his two daughters to Thanksgiving dinner. Andy is especially pleased to have an inside story on the first obituary he's been assigned. Though he gains no information usable for the obit, the thirteen-year-old Janelle leaves one more snapshot of an impression; this is a girl who will not age to be the drawn, hopeless face of her mother.

Jump ahead to 1963. David Becker, desiring to be in control of his own ministry, with the help of Roger Stolz buys a drive-in theater. His ministry has only been open a few weeks when Janelle, now sixteen-years-old and in rough shape, needs help. She's doing LSD supplied by her brothers, who also repeately rape her. Her sister Lynnette is long gone. Janelle finds her way to David's ministry where he and his wife place her with a friend's family. Nick goes after the brothers in his official police capacity. Andy writes a heartbreaking story on the Vonns, told as an anonymous story. People figure out who the story is about and the community pulls together to help out Janelle.

Now it is 1968 and Nick's the lead on his first homicide case. When he and his partner arrive at the Sunblesst packing house, his ambitious brother Andy is already on the scene. Looking around the crime scene and then down at the body, Nick observes that the victim is wearing a blue turtleneck sweater -- with no head. Janelle's head has been sawed off and left nearby. In shock, "Nick finally stood. Trembled for just a moment. First case and you know her."

Needless to say the rest of the novel, or at least the plot, is about Nick's case and the murder investigation. Actually there is another murder investigation ongoing as well, a shooting at a Laguna Beach gay hotel, which seems unrelated excerpt for its timing. Meanwile, by this time, Andy's career has progressed to a larger newspaper and he's a covering Laguna Beach, he has more stories to write and the paper is less conservative than The Tustin Times. Janelle was living in Laguna Beach at the time of ther death, so Andy's natually looking to capture the feature story. Being brothers they have an advantage, but it doesn't mean that they always share information with each other. With the third-person narration, we have the broader view of the case as we follow each brother. We also follow David Becker and his growing church. Since Janelle was part of his congregation, he incidentally fills in some of the details of the decent person Janelle turned into, certainly, adding more questions to her incongruous death. Or is it? What might David really know?

Certainly this is a murder mystery, there is a beheaded body in a packing house. We don't know how it got there, we don't know who did it. Yet, the story is greater than the ongoing investigation. Similar to Walter Mosley's Little Scarlet or Gus Weill's The Cajuns, the political atmosphere is the backbone to the story. California Girl is set near San Clemente, Richard Nixon's home. Representative Roger Stulz is a friend of the Becker family and a proponent for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. He is also a leading figure in the secret John Birch Society, as so are Max and Monica Becker. Of the sons, only Clay is influenced by the right wing view of the world. The other Becker boys are more skeptical, with Andy, the youngest, expressing the most liberal viewpoint, although none of them are part of the sixties revolution. They are an in-between generation; just old enough and responsible enough to not be part of the scene. But Janelle is young enough. Her murder investigation is one vehicle that allows us a glimpse into the world of free sex and LSD and gives the contrast to the Becker brothers' points of view. It's an unusual way to tell a sixties story, to have characters young enough that you'd think they'd be hip; but instead, the Becker brothers are on the outside observing the shifting landscape. By pulling us through the time shots in the beginning of the book, we not only see how Janelle intersects their lives, but the author lays the foundation for the Becker brothers belief systems. If the political atmosphere is the backbone, the family saga is the blood running through this novel.

California Girl is a masterfully written novel, far more complicated than the author's writing style would lead one to believe. Parker tells much of the story through dialogue, but this is a detail that you have to look close to notice. It's not witty repartee like some of the authors most noted for dialogue, his style is to tell the story through the character interaction mixed with third person observation, shifting from one brother to the next. Many authors would handle this by delinating whole chapters to each brother's point of view. Parker skillfully shifts from one to another without ever confusing reader. This is first and last a murder mystery, and a rewarding one at that. But all this other stuff is why reviewers like to praise him as a "thinking man's" bestseller writer. California Girl is a good read, but, in my opinion, still not as awesome as Silent Joe.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 34 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from California Girl at T. Jefferson Parker's website

(back to top)

"Cold Pursuit"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 31, 2003)

"McMichael said nothing for a long moment, thinking about the way the past forms the present, and how impossibly hard it was to change things once they were set in motion. Fifty years of hatred and vengeance born from a bad fishing trip and -- most likely -- two stubborn and hungry men who wouldn't back down until one of them was dead. And their children damaged in different ways, and their children still bickering over what happened and why and who was to blame."

Tom McMichael is the San Diego homicide detective whose rotation is up for the next case that gets called in, which turns out to be the murder of an eighty-four year old man named Pete Braga. Under the circumstances, Tom could turn it over to Team Two, but without hesitation he accepts it, despite the history of spilt blood between the Bragas and McMichaels. In 1952, back when Pete Braga was a Tuna Fleet Captain, he shot and killed McMichael's grandfather, in what he claimed to be self-defense. The McMichael family saw things differently.

Read excerptThe main suspect, at least initially, is a Sally Rainwater, Pete Braga's attractive second shift nurse. Tom's weighing odds "ninety-ten" that she didn't do it, but his bullish partner, Hector Paz, is more skeptical and gives her innocence a "sixty-forty." Sally has blood smears on her clothing and skin, plus drops of blood on her boots. She knows the name of the blunt object that killed Braga is a "fish whacker" but says she's never touched it. She claims she was out buying firewood for the fireplace and when she returned someone slipped out the glass door and ran down the beach. Could have been a man or woman, but ran like a man. It's a curious killing because there are a few pieces of art missing from the house. Hector's thinking that maybe Sally is part of a team, but robbery doesn't seem to make sense in light of what isn't missing: $245 in cash left in Pete's wallet and a box full of jewelry left on a dresser. Certainly, Pete's granddaughter, Patricia Hansen, and her husband, Garland, believe that the nurse is on it or at minimum she's guilty of trying to swindle Pete out of his things. So, again Tom wonders, if the latter is true, why would Sally kill off her sugar daddy?

The next day they pay a visit to Sally Rainwater in her home in Imperial Beach. The visit does clear up some questions, but also muddles things up a bit for McMichael who finds that he is unusually attracted to Rainwater. His wife recently divorced him after seven years of marriage, reducing his family life down to twice weekly visitations with his young son whom he adores. Looking at women is far from his everyday existence. Paz, of course, warns McMichael, but physical attractions never heed common sense. So, even though McMichael is trying to earnestly solve this case, by all outward appearance it begins to look as if he he's not interested in pursuing the only suspect, the assumptions made worse by the fact that he's a McMichael assigned to a Braga case.

Also working to his disadvantage is an IAD investigation into the activities of McMichael's former vice partner, Jimmy Thigpen, who was arrested four weeks earlier. IAD assumes that McMichael, if not dirty, at least must have known about Thigpen's activities, which he didn't. One of the "brain thorns" that is mentioned during the interrogation is that Thigpen was doing some moonlighting for Pete Braga. Tom doesn't think its likely that it would tie into the murder, but it's still curious.

Though there seems to be nothing concrete there are a series of things that are incomplete or odd that McMichael and his team are investigating. Like, there are some papers that Pete Braga's lawyers seemed to have mislaid several times, and still can't find, something to do with a change in his will. A feather from a rare bird found at the murder scene. There's sorting through Pete's dealings with the shady and ruthless Port Commissioners. A missing prostitute. And a thread on some activity that is going on between Pete Braga's Ford Dealership and a upholstery company over the border in Mexico. The fact that Braga's 63-year-old son, Victor, goes along for the weekly ride strikes them as strange. Victor is extremely retarded, with a mind of a 10-year-old. And then, in the middle of all this, evidence turns up that reveals that Sally Rainwater had been in on the crime and McMichael, chastened, must be part of the arrest team.

Cold Pursuit is a good police procedural. There are a lot of threads, some tugged lead nowhere whereas others unravel whole skeins of information, action and sometimes, just plain mean characters. It's a naturally complicated case because there are so many with motive; he "had more enemies than a gossip columnist. He had business enemies, political enemies, personal enemies." He also was embedded in the San Diego waterfront community with its secretive Port Commission's wheeling and dealing. Any number of things could have resulted in Pete Braga's murder. And McMichaels can't even discount his own father playing a role. And Sally Rainwater does not feel like the right arrest.

If it were only a police procedural it wouldn't be half the novel that it is. Cold Pursuit is filled with family. Tom's sister owns the cigar factory down on the waterfront, he often has drinks and dines with his dad, and there are the bi-weekly visitations with his son. One particularly well-drawn scene is when Tom visits his son at his ex-wife's home that she shares with new husband. This has nothing to do with plot, all to do with laying out everyone's characters, which Parker does with vivid honesty.

Even though I really enjoyed this novel and think others will as well, my first initial reaction was that I was slightly disappointed. My problem is that I was introduced to T. Jefferson Parker's with Silent Joe and that set a very high bar. Naturally, I had hoped that this one would meet or surpass it. And maybe it does on some levels, after all, this is the first time Parker writes about a place that he doesn't live in, and does so with as much convincing details as his novels set in a place that he has lived for forty years. Plus the plot in Cold Pursuit strays far from a traditional feud-based murder story that I might have expected. What he does with this plot is something like unconsciously stretching and stretching a rubber band and then when it pops, the snap shocks us because we hadn't realized how much tension had been building. And true to his talent, the characters are all highly dimensional. So yes, Cold Pursuit is a very good, even if I can't say it beats Silent Joe on my favorites list.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 25 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Cold Pursuit at MostlyFiction.com

(back to top)

"Silent Joe"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 08 2001)

"A dog can keep a secret, but a man has to learn when he's doing more harm then good with it."

Joe Trona, at age 24, is already hard-boiled. During the day, he's a Deputy for the Orange County Sheriff's Department assigned to work at the Central Jail Complex, as are all new deputies. He's been working this job for four years, and after one more year he can be reassigned to patrol and start becoming a real cop. But he's not just passing time, he really likes working Men's Central because it reminds him of the orphanage he lived in until he was five. He's comforted by the regiment and by the realization that he can leave when his shift is over.

At night, he is Will Trona's driver. Joe is the silent protector for this charismatic Orange County politician as he he goes about his "night business." Night business is what powerful politicians do when the people who vote them in aren't looking. For years, Joe has obeyed Will's beck and call with his "eyes open, mouth shut."

Will Trona is Joe's adopted father and hero. Joe is eternally indebted to Will and Mary Ann Trona for adopting him, scarred as he was, and bringing him into their beautiful family. For Joe Trona is the "acid baby," so dubbed by the media after his father poured a cup of acid on his 9-month old face. Joe has always gone along with Will's furtive night business out of love for the man and a need to be useful.

Despite plastic surgery, his otherwise handsome face has a permanent, hideous scar. To offset the ugliness, Joe has impeccably good manners. But Joe has other skills appropriate to survive with his notorious face. He's proficient at self-defense with five black belts and two Golden Gloves titles, conversant in most weapons, an expert marksman and drives like a race car professional. Although, he'll tell you he spent his whole life learning to defend himself so that what happened when he was nine months old wouldn't happen again, the truth is Joe has been groomed as Will Trona's personal bodyguard, dedicated to protecting him and his property, like a good guard dog.

But on this one fateful night, while retrieving a kidnapped girl, the Trona's are trapped in an alley by a gang. "They had us and I knew there wasn't one thing I could do right then except stand there and watch." Will is murdered, Joe has failed at his primary mission and the girl is lost. With the help of his eidetic memory, he's able to piece together conversational bits of that last evening of night business. Thus begins his search for his father's killer, the missing girl and an investigation that leads him to some ugly truths about his adoptive father.

Joe Trona is a complex character and Parker fleshes him out with some very unusual and unforgettable details. Although set in the middle of a murder investigation, Silent Joe is an intricate psychological portrayal of a young man with a severely scarred face. "I don't want to be considered pathetic, Ms. Dauer. Repellent is acceptable. Repellent is appropriate. But pathetic is something I can't stand." As the story unfolds, it's apparent that Joe Trona's scars are not just skin deep. And that the very acts that brought about his father's murder, are the same ones that made him who he is today.

Silent Joe is narrated in the hard-boiled private investigative style and from start to finish is a good read. T. Jefferson Parker has created a most unique and heartfelt character, so compelling, it's natural to hope for a Joe Trona sequel. After all, Joe is only 24 and he's just begun to understand his own legacy, there must be more to tell.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 57 reviews

Read an excerpt from Silent Joe at the author's website

(back to top)

Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Merci Rayborn series:

Sheriff Charlie Hood series:


(back to top)

Book Marks:


(back to top)

About the Author:

T. Jefferson ParkerT. Jefferson Parker was born in Los Angeles and has lived all his life in Southern California. His writing career began in 1978, as a cub reporter on the weekly newspaper, The Newport Ensign. After covering police, city hall and cultural stories for the Ensign, Parker moved on to the Daily Pilot newspaper, where he won three Orange County Press Club awards for his articles. All the while he was tucking away stories and information that he would use in his first book.

In 1980 Parker was hired by the Orange Coast Daily Pilot. By then, he was already working evenings and weekends on his first novel, Laguna Heat, a project that he ended up rewriting six times. He left the Daily Pilot in 1982 and took a job as a technical editor at Ford Aerospace Communications Corp.

In 1985, Laguna Heat was published to rave reviews and was made into an HBO movie starring Harry Hamlin, Jason Robards and Rip Torn. The paperback made the New York Times Bestseller list in 1986.

After the success with his first novel, he decided to become a full-time writer. Parker's books-all dealing with crime, life and death in sunny Southern California-have each been published to uniformly good reviews and have appeared on various regional bestseller lists.

In addition to being a successful novelist, Parker continues his career in journalism. He is an occasional contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and Los Angeles Times Magazine, and for three years wrote a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times Orange County Edition called "Parker's Place."

He lives with his family in Southern California. When not working on his books, Parker spends his time with his family, hiking, hunting and fishing, and haunting the public tennis courts. He enjoys diving, snorkeling, and travel. He escapes to a trailer in the desert in the spring and fall, to hike the country and not answer telephones.


MostlyFiction.com About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014 MostlyFiction.com