Time for a quick pop culture Rorschach test.
Say the first thing that pops into your head when you see the following characters in a TV show, a movie or a mystery novel:
- Television preacher
- Refugee who fought against Communism and is still active in reclaiming his country
- Member of the John Birch Society
- Antiwar activist
- Wealthy real estate developer
- Fixer for a local politician
- Defense contractor
- Conservative politician
Unless you've been holed up reading the Durants' History of Civilization for the last 25 years or only watching the oldest movies on Turner Classic Movies, your answers probably are something like this:
- Money-hungry pervert
- Fascist killer seeking his lost power
- Deranged, bigoted nutball
- Idealistic and courageous
- Corrupt, power-hungry maniac
- Amoral sleazeball capable of anything
- Greedy warmongering paranoid
- Any or all of the above
I stopped watching Law and Order years ago, not just because of my aversion to formulaic drama but because I could predict the outcome of the "ripped from the headline episodes" based on the characters' political persuasions. The beauty of T. Jefferson Parker's crime fiction, on the other hand, is that he not only is one of the best writers accurately portraying police work, but he also crafts characters who confound politically correct stereotypes who inhabit other media.
This was especially true of Parker's last book, California Girl, which was about the spicy stew of Southern California with its mix of radical campuses, military bases, liberal urban politicians, megachurches and some of the most conservative suburban areas in the nation. It's a place where voters in one district will send "B-1 Bob" Dornan to Congress, and their neighbors will vote for Tom Hayden.
Parker served notice in 1988 with his second book, Little Saigon, that he would not be following the dominant media political template. Little Saigon took a contemptuous view toward those who bragged about ending Vietnam War while ignoring communism's victims, and Parker put himself squarely on the side of the boat people – not as pitiful refugees but as freedom fighters hoping to overthrow the Hanoi regime.
His latest, The Fallen, is an evocative mystery on a much smaller scale. Set in San Diego, "the world's best city," The Fallen has a backdrop of municipal corruption, but its point is both more personal and more universal. As the prophet Jeremiah noted, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?"
The narrator is Robbie Brownlaw, a homicide detective who became a minor celebrity of sorts after surviving a televised five-story fall from a burning hotel. What Robbie has told no one except his wife, Gina (who everyone agrees is far too pretty for him), is that the fall left him with a neurological condition known as synesthesia. When people talk, Robbie sees colored shapes that he thinks reveal their true emotions.
While he thinks his condition may provide him with a valuable investigative tool, Robbie is wise enough to take it with a grain of salt and find real evidence to back up his suspicions.
Robbie catches a case that could have far-reaching effects for his fair city. Garrett Asplundh, a former internal affairs cop who became an ethics investigator for the city, is found dead in his car under a bridge. Garrett was unusually well liked for a man in his position, partly because he was a straight arrow who tempered his actions with compassion and partly because of his tragic past; the death of his daughter had led to the disintegration of his "perfect" marriage.
Garrett was on the trail of the Squeaky Clean Girls, a Heidi Fleiss-like prostitution ring whose client list read like a who's who of city government and the police department. Included were people in charge of determining the city's bond rating, whose exposure could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
But while Garrett was proceeding cautiously, trying to make sure he did more good than harm with his investigation, a homicide investigation cannot proceed so lightly.
Robbie is a genuinely likeable and moral hero who hungers for doing the right thing; he's the most interesting mystery protagonist without a dark side in a long while. While thinking about a young woman Garrett guided away from a career as a Squeaky Clean Girl, Robbie muses:
April was lovely and seemed older than her eighteen years. She looked wholesome and innocent and I saw again the value of what Squeaky Clean had tried to buy from April but Garrett had allowed her to keep. I wondered why the world was so eager to consume wholesomeness and innocence.
Parker uses the synesthesia angle more to explore emotions than plot points. The identity of the murderer is as big a surprise to Robbie as to the reader and is uncovered through old-fashioned detective work.
Because of Robbie and Parker's superb writing, The Fallen does not stumble into the common traps of most sleazy noir novels despite its subject matter. No matter what bleak corners the plot takes us around, hope cuts through the darkness.
While Michael Connelly is widely regarded as the best successor to the semi-retired Joseph Wambaugh when it comes to chronicling what it's like to be a modern cop, T. Jefferson Parker's police-oriented novels over the past decade are just as good. Connelly's many fans need to check out The Fallen.
Another Southern California crime writer who keeps getting better with age is Robert Crais, creator of the popular Elvis Cole private eye series. Crais early work was an uncomfortably derivative L.A. version of Robert Parker's Spenser series, but while Parker's writing has devolved into self-caricature, Crais is approaching Raymond Chandler-class storytelling.
Crais's latest stand-alone novel, The Two Minute Rule, features his best writing yet. While it is a suspense novel that eventually follows an expert thriller arc, it is largely a character study about a father's loss and regret. He may have paid his debt to society, but he only has one chance for personal redemption.
Max Holman, a convicted bank robber, is being released from prison early because of his model behavior and the extenuating circumstances of his arrest. Max was an unarmed thief who bluffed his way through heists using only a note. He was caught only because he stopped to give CPR to an old man having a heart attack brought on by the excitement of the robbery, thus staying in the bank longer than the two-minute limit for success.
Max's only real goal upon release is to reconcile with his estranged son, a family man and rookie L.A. cop who, as Max's ex tells him with an equal dose of bitterness and pride, is deliberately working to be everything his old man was not.
But on the day Max is released, his son and several other officers are killed in a shootout. When Max visits the scene, he realizes the story does not ring true, but a paroled bank robber is hardly the guy to challenge the official version.
Max turns to the only person he can trust, Katherine Pollard, the FBI agent who arrested him and testified on his behalf at his sentencing. But Katherine has left the FBI to get married and is now a single mother raising two kids. This dogged odd couple ring truer than you might think, as Crais persuades us that each responds to the core of integrity they see in the other.
Like T. Jefferson Parker, Crais has tremendous empathy for the victims of crime, and the passages where the grieving father on a mission talks with widows and other survivors are very poignant. The importance of fathers — or the lack thereof — has been a constant theme in Crais's recent Elvis Cole novels, as he explores the detective's past and his longing for a real family. The Two Minute Rule takes a new direction by giving us the absent father's guilt-ridden point of view.
If you read for entertainment, and are looking for smart thrillers that ring true and are free of partisan blather or politically correct stereotypes, check out most of T. Jefferson Parker (I can't recommend The Triggerman's Dance or Pacific Beat) and anything by Robert Crais.