California Girl

by T. Jefferson Parker

Published by William Morrow

370 pages, 2004






The Fabulous Becker Boys

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith


T. Jefferson Parker's California Girl is that most wonderful of rarities -- a crime thriller whose story justifies every single one of its pages. Anyone who's followed my musings on crime fiction over the years is well aware that I'm no fan of those big bloated slabs of hollow storytelling publishers are always trying to fob off on us, as though readers crave quantity more than quality. What, after all, is so thrilling about a 200-page story saddled with an extra 200 or 300 pages of literary fat? Who really needs all those extraneous side plots, parallel plots and back stories, or that brain-numbing overwriting?

California Girl, though, is a glorious exception. Parker's always had the literary chops, but this tale of brothers trying to come to terms with the events of the late 1960s in Orange County, and the gruesome murder of their poor, doomed childhood acquaintance, Jannelle Vonn (the "California Girl" of the title), is something else again. It's a bold, ambitious, richly detailed yarn that casts a searing, unblinking spotlight into the dark corners of a turbulent era, and for once, readers are getting their money's worth. Forget pointless pages -- there's barely a wasted word here.

* * *

Over the last two decades, the Edgar Award-winning Parker has carved a niche for himself as the go-to guy when it comes to big, noir-tinged books of crime and violence that belie their sun-drenched Southern California settings, and which often use the trappings of police procedurals and police officer protagonists to make their point. In 11 previous, acclaimed novels, ranging from his 1985 powerhouse debut, Laguna Heat, right up to last year's awesome Cold Pursuit, a regret-tinged fever dream of murder and family secrets, Parker has shown amazing versatility, constantly challenging both himself and his readers.

It's strange, then, that California Girl seems at first glance to be just a retread of Cold Pursuit, another story of a police detective whose troubled family history is dragged kicking and screaming back into the light when he's assigned to investigate a local murder. Fortunately, it only takes a few pages to dispel that disappointment and to realize that Parker is after much bigger game this time around. Whereas Pursuit's San Diego homicide cop, Tom McMichael, was a seasoned detective, and his investigation into the bludgeoning death of a local fishing captain and politico took place in contemporary times, and played itself out mostly in a matter of weeks, the action in California Girl ranges over half a century, from 1954 to "Here and Now," as the opening preface and concluding section of this book, narrated by aging police officer Nick Becker, are titled.

In fact, the three-page preface, which finds Becker taking a nostalgic drive through the past that still haunts him, on his way to meet with his journalist brother, Andy (still "tough as boiled owl"), is an amazing bit of writing, subtly evocative, and offering a fast glimpse of the emotional richness to come. As he passes by where the SunBlesst orange-packing plant once stood in the small, Orange County town of Tustin -- and where the mutilated corpse of Janelle Vonn was discovered in October 1968 -- Nick muses on his history, back when "I was young. When I thought that what happened there shouldn't ever happen anywhere. When I thought it was up to me to put things right."

It's a strong opening, as well as a fair introduction to a tale that is all about the past -- its power to haunt and twist the present. And the ruefully admitted confession that, once upon a time, Nick thought he could put things right (and the unspoken suggestion that he no longer believes that) speaks directly to the theme of lost innocence that permeates this novel.

This is a sad, bittersweet sort of nostalgia, perfectly rendered by Parker's deft prose. But it's nothing compared to the narrative bombshell that Andy drops on Nick as they sit down to eat: "Listen to me, Nick. Everything we thought about Janelle Vonn was wrong."

Then, before the reader can even get his or her head around this notion -- or ask, "Who the hell is Janelle Vonn?" -- we're transported back to a soft June evening in 1954, a time when, as the unnamed narrator notes with almost a sense of awe, there were still orange trees in Orange County. The four teenage Becker brothers -- David, Nick and Clay, accompanied by the "baby," 12-year-old Andy -- are heading to the SunBlesst packinghouse, to take part in a rumble with the notorious Vonn brothers, local high-school badasses, over a baseball cap. Stupid, maybe, but not exactly life or death. Except this episode is a grim foreshadowing of things that will become matters of life and death, of all that will happen over the next 50 years -- a tiny pebble tossed into the puddle of time that will continue to reverberate through the decades and tear through peoples' lives like a tidal wave.

It is in the aftermath of that scuffle, when his vision is still blurred as a result of a cowardly blow by one of the Vonn boys (wielding a tree limb), that Nick first spots the girl whose life, and death, will ultimately have such an impact on the Becker brothers' lives:

She had a faded blue dress and a red ribbon in her hair and a pair of scuffed brown cowboy boots. An orange in each hand ... Looked about five.

"I am Janelle Vonn and those are my brothers," she said.

She dropped the oranges and scrambled back up the gravel and out of sight.

But Janelle isn't out of sight for long. She soon reappears, in sections of this book dated 1960, 1963 and, in particular, 1968 -- that last being the largest chunk of California Girl, by far, in which rookie detective Nick is charged with investigating her grisly death.

During the process of his investigation, and through the unfolding of the Becker brothers' lives, we bear witness to a world in constant flux, reported in loving detail that takes the time to note both the cost of LPs ($2.99!) and the hopes and fears of the era (The Commies! The hippies! The pigs!), encompassing both the buttoned-down world of the Beckers' straight-laced conservative parents and the wide-open counter-cultural swirl of free love, acid dropping and rock 'n' roll. It's a strange new world, where anything and everything seems possible, and it turns out that poor Janelle Vonn -- beauty queen, groupie, abuse victim and churchgoer -- was "connected to everything."

In the course of events, both presidential candidate Richard Nixon and acid guru Timothy Leary show up, not to mention a young folk singer by the name of Charles Manson, and an FBI agent who talks about a new kind of killer out there, one who kills for thrills. Meanwhile, overseas, a war rages unchecked and seemingly out of control. But it's Janelle, in life and death, who's the real spiritual centerpiece of this tale.

Pinned against that backdrop of social, political and cultural upheaval, and the ongoing probe into Janelle's murder, are the hapless Becker brothers, their friends and their families. In the dark maelstrom of those times, simple human failures and weaknesses are whipped into a froth of painful secrets -- secrets that, like avenging spirits that cannot be denied, eventually lay the players in this story to waste.

* * *

Not that Janelle's ghost is the only one to pass through California Girl. There's at least one more important specter wandering these pages: Vietnam, in the person of Clay, the mean-spirited Becker sibling whose schoolyard bullying was the spark that ignited the initial conflict between the Becker and Vonn brothers.

Clay, with "the face of a movie star and the soul of a devil," is barely in this novel, except for during the rumble and a brief visit for one Thanksgiving family dinner, when he's on leave from the Army Language School in Monterey -- a Cold War warrior on a "CIA scholarship," as he explains it to Andy. Yet Clay remains a presence, even offstage. In 1963, he's in Vietnam somewhere, "advising the government," and by 1968, he's dead, killed in action, the details of his demise never made quite clear to the readers, or even the Becker family.

However, Nick, his balance and vision still impaired as a result of that long-ago tussle with the Vonns, can't forget his belligerent younger brother. "Damned mean beautiful Clay Becker," he thinks, with not a little anger, before accepting the futility of trying to fix the past. "Back when Clay died, Nick thought his heart was going to explode because he couldn't do anything about it. Not one goddamned thing."

And that's another theme the remaining Becker boys discover as they age: that the past is as much an unexplored country as the future, a place where absolute truth is rare, if not nonexistent, and any attempt at concealing it may come at a very high price. For in California Girl, ultimately nobody gets off lightly. Even David, the "good" son, the successful preacher with a growing congregation at the Grove Drive-In Church of God (where else but in California?), ends up splayed by the truth, or more precisely, his efforts to hide it. If a man of God is not safe, what chance do any of us have?

But perhaps I've given you the wrong impression of California Girl. The ultimate message here is not one of facile cynicism or fatalistic grimness; rather, it's one of optimism, believe it or not. For such an often bleak and dark novel, there is also an unexpected generosity of spirit in Girl -- of tolerance, and an unabashed celebration of family and the simple, pure joy of life, almost as though Parker were channeling John Steinbeck, another California wordsmith who often wrote with his heart on his sleeve. Epiphanies both spiritual and personal abound, perhaps revealed most tellingly in a scene where David says grace during a family dinner at their parents' house. The three surviving brothers are all grown up now, the innocence of their childhoods long gone, married with children of their own. Only ambitious reporter and perennially skeptical bachelor Andy, whose life is slowly beginning to unravel, remains without progeny. But as he sits there, surrounded by his parents, his brothers and their families, David speaks:

Andy let David's words fall on him like a warm rain. He didn't think that God heard or responded to prayers, but who really knew? He felt Teresa's hand and Wendy's hand. Both soft and warm, one grown and one growing. He thought of the way the years run through everyone like a big river. Of the way we hang on to our little crafts and try to get wherever it is we think we're going. Sometimes flail and cough and spit up the river water, too. How some get a long journey and some get what Clay and Janelle got and some didn't even get that much. Which meant that the people here, still on the river, really should be thankful for it.

When he opened his eyes Andy looked at every person at the table and knew he was lucky to be there among them.

That's just a single powerful moment in a book that has too many such powerful moments to mention, but it's a telling scene, one that goes straight to the heart of the matter, and that may resonate in the hearts of more than a few readers. The big game Parker is after, it turns out, is not au courant facile cynicism or bleak finger-pointing despair, but the acknowledgment that, no matter how much life grinds us down, things like family, truth, decency and love still matter. And that life is still a much better deal than the alternative. Or as one character puts it near the end of this bold and emotionally wrenching tour de force, you've got to "live a little."

Amid America's post-presidential election landscape, where political and cultural fissures are arguably even more gaping than they were back in 1968, this is a message worth hearing again.

No matter how many pages it takes. | November 2004


Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributing editor and a columnist for Mystery Scene. He's also the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he currently lives in the high desert north of Los Angeles with the rednecks, the rattlesnakes and his own California Girl.