If crime fiction set in Southern California is your thing, T. Jefferson Parker is your guy. The multiple Edgar Award-winning bestseller (and fanatic fly-fisherman) was born and raised there, and knows his way around the bad guys – figuratively speaking.
Parker crafted his first crime thriller in his spare hours while working as a much-decorated journalist for the Daily Pilot in Orange County. “Laguna Heat” appeared in 1985 and was translated into an HBO movie two years later, starring Harry Hamlin and Rip Torn.
“It was almost dream-like good fortune that greeted me, and I was barely smart enough to realize how lucky I was – and still am – to be able to make a living at this,” said Parker, 62.
6 Number of titles in the “Charlie Hood” series
Twenty more mystery-thrillers followed, the last two unexpectedly out of Parker’s trademark genre and into a more literary arena. In 2014’s “Full Measure,” he wrote about two brothers (one a returning Iraqi War vet) living in Fallbrook (Parker’s San Diego County hometown), struggling to adjust to major changes in their lives. In the newly released “Crazy Blood,” two half-brothers from a dynastic ski-racing family play out their deadly rivalry on the ski-cross slopes of Mammoth Mountain; one of them has recently returned from a military tour in Afghanistan (St. Martin’s, $27, 290 pages).
Perhaps his best-known work is the six-title “Charlie Hood” series, starring the rough ’n’ tumble – but straight-arrow – Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy whose undercover work squares him off against gun- and drug-runners along the U.S.-Mexico border. Lionsgate studio holds the movie rights.
We caught up with Parker at home, where he was taking a brief break from a multicity book tour.
Q: The competitive ski-cross scenes in “Crazy Blood” are thrilling, and the mountain lifestyle seems dead-on.
A: Creative writing teachers say to write what you know, but in this book I wrote what terrifies me. I did a lot of research (including) interviews with ski racers. I didn’t get on skis till I was 50, so basically I projected my own fears and imagination onto the ski slopes, where clearly I don’t belong. What inspired me was watching the racers at Mammoth Mountain and (positioning) my two young boys to get a useful introduction to skiing, which I never got.
Q: One recurring theme in your work is the juxtaposition of brothers in conflict, at the hearts of “Crazy Blood” and “Full Measure.”
A: All those crazy brothers must come from my deep-down dark subconscious. I’ve always been interested in the eternally debated question of nurture vs. nature. How can two brothers growing up in the same household, a few years apart in age, turn out so differently? Look at Ted Kaczynski and his brother. One was the Unabomber and the other one turned him in. And go back to the bone-chilling Old Testament tales of Cain and Abel, and Jacob and Esau. If brothers can be that different, I want to write about them. (By the way,) my brother and I are very close.
Q: What about the “returning war vets” element?
A: I know (that component) doesn’t fit in with the crime-mystery genre, but I think the returning war vets are the most urgent and representative story playing out across our republic today. It’s too important a story not to write about, and I wanted to do some justice to them, so I went outside my genre to do it.
Q: You live only seven miles from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
A: Yes, and I have seen and talked in full measure with many of the vets lucky enough to have returned from the wars we have been lured into since 9/11. I was punched in the face by the sacrifices they have made. (Out of respect) I’ve done a fair amount of talks for the Wounded Warriors Project and other groups, and hope to do more.
A: There’s no end of material to choose from. It’s such a sprawl, and there’s so much opportunity for everything from the most petty street hustlers to the most ruthless and polished beasts of the drug cartels and their representatives in California.
Q: You introduced a despicable, bizarre character named Mike Finnegan in “Iron River,” book three in the “Charlie Hood” series.
A: I departed from straight genre crime writing (for that), suggesting at the end of the book that Mike might have devilish powers, and dealing with him in more detail in (the following three books). He is simply my desire to give evil a speaking role. The more time I spent researching and observing the drug and cartel wars on the U.S.-Mexico border, the more I wanted to blame that kind of carnage and greed on something bigger than human beings. The idea was that this mid-level devil is instrumental in wreaking havoc on mankind as he tries to draw our souls down into damnation.
Q: Will you be coming back to your mystery-thrillers?
A: Yes, it’s time to return to a life of crime. I have one in the works now. but I’m not done with it, so it’s very difficult to talk about.
Q: What does the “T” in your name stand for?
A: People are always so curious about that. It’s a decorative initial that was put on my birth certificate by my mom and dad. The “T” doesn’t stand for a name, so at age 12 I finally said, “Mom, what gives with the T?” She said, “Well, Jeffie, your father and I thought it would look good on the door of the Oval office.” They were Orange County patriots who gave me a presidential name, maybe hoping they’d get something better than a mystery writer.