Crime novelist James L’Etoile is so laid-back and soft-spoken, one would never guess his 29-year career with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation regularly brought him face-to-face with violent gang members, murderers, drug traffickers and other menaces to society. Sometimes in confrontational ways.
L’Etoile draws on that cast of characters and behind-bars dramas to saturate his crime novels, “At What Cost” and “Bury the Past” (Crooked Lane, $16 and $27, respectively). Set firmly in Sacramento, with plenty of local landmarks (Garden Highway, Harv’s Car Wash, the Capitol Rotunda and dozens more), they’re a close-up look at how law enforcement actually maneuvers between two extremes – the bad guys on one side, the bureaucracy on the other.
The novels pit Sacramento Police Department detectives/partners John Penley and Paula Newberry against a cesspool of career felons, serial killers, black marketers, gang members and crooked cops. Of course, overzealous city officials and the media have Penley and Newberry in a different kind of vise.
“Working in the criminal justice system, you come across hundreds of characters and unique stories – some tragic and some that offer hope,” said L’Etoile (pronounced la-TWELL). “I draw on that well of background material in my second career as a crime-fiction author, infusing my stories with real details from behind prison walls and the streets.”
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His first novel, “Little River” (2013), was anything but that. It’s about two single parents’ desperate search for their two college-age daughters who disappear from a Jamaican resort.
Either way, one wonders about the foundation of L’Etoile’s transition from corrections careerist to novelist. Turns out it was the years he spent writing pre-sentencing reports for judges, he said.
“In a way, they were constructed like a novel. They included interviews with the defendants, the victims and the police. You’re piecing it together, telling a story of what you believe really happened and how it impacted everybody. It’s where I got the writing bug.”
Sacramento is an ideal setting for his crime novels, he said, because it “has such a rich and vibrant crime history. For instance, we can claim that 15 percent of the nation’s serial killers came out of this region, (including) the Vampire of Sacramento, the Speed Freak Killers, the I-5 Strangler and the Golden State Killer, to name a few.”
After nearly three decades spent interacting with the dregs of society, did his worldview become a bit jaded?
“I’ve experienced the brutality and it’s hard to keep it from changing you,” he allowed. “Fortunately, one of my assignments was as the head of the prison system’s substance abuse programs. It showed me that under the right structure, some offenders can change in positive ways, which gave me hope.”
Still, prison can be a deadly place, as L’Etoile found during his six years working in Folsom Prison’s isolated Security Housing Unit. “It’s a prison within a prison, for the worst of the worst,” he said. “It can be very, very dangerous if you’re not careful. We had (members of) the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia and Black Guerrilla Family, whose tradition was to stab a staff member every August.”
Sometimes, it must have felt to L’Etoile that he himself was a prisoner. “There was a good piece of that,” he said. “Inmates in the tier would tell me, ‘You’re doing time, too, only you get to go home at the end of the day. But you’re back here again the next morning.’ ”
L’Etoile, 60, and his wife of 42 years, Ann-Marie, live in an immaculate, well-furnished house on a cul-de-sac in Cameron Park. They have two adult children, one of whom is a Sacramento County parole officer.
Their tail-wagging Welsh corgi, Emma, is a registered therapy dog they take to assisted living facilities, memory care units and hospitals “to visit with people who need a little comfort in their lives,” he said.
L’Etoile has a master’s degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State, and held various positions at Folsom Prison and California State Prison, Sacramento. He served as an investigator, associate warden, facility captain and director of adult parole, and is an FBI-trained hostage negotiator, a skill he frequently used “to resolve and de-escalate situations.” Nationally, he’s recognized as a consultant and expert witness on prison programs and operations. “I spent a lot of time in the state Capitol, in the governor’s office and in front of judges,” he said.
L’Etoile’s father worked at San Quentin (“Some of my earliest memories are of meeting him at the front gate after his shift”) and was the commander of minimum-security Growlersburg Conservation Camp in Georgetown, among other postings
“We lived on the grounds at a couple of prisons, so I got a good idea of what was going on in the system,” L’Etoile said. “I had interactions with some of the inmates, and got a better understanding of who they were and where they came from”
As a child at a conservation camp in Tulare County, “I would wander around the grounds, and the inmate-gardener was basically my playmate. He’d wheel me around in his wheelbarrow. I didn’t know he was a convicted bank robber.”
There’s a lot happening in L’Etoile’s new professional life, as favorable reviews from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist pile up. “Bury the Past” was just nominated for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award for best procedural, and was a finalist in the American Book Awards/Thriller Adventure category.
In July, L’Etoile appeared at ThrillerFest in New York, and in September will be on a panel at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Florida. Mystery Writers of America’s NorCal Chapter will host him locally in October during its annual “Mystery Week.”
At a conference in Toronto last year, he introduced an interactive “Prison Trivia Quiz,” a hit with audiences ever since. “We have 20 questions about prison history, slang, operations and populations that test what the public knows about the system, which is very surface,” he said. “The typical winner gets maybe six right. It’s a real education.”
Sample question: Which of the following is the California prison with the highest level of general population security: San Quentin, Folsom or Mule Creek? (The answer is: Mule Creek in Ione, Amador County)
At book signings, one question audiences consistently ask him is, “Did you know Charles Manson?” No, Manson was transferred from Folsom prison to another facility before L’Etoile arrived, prompting the second-most-asked question: “Who did you know who was famous?”
“There were many notorious inmates inside, but behind the walls they were usually very quiet and compliant with direction,” he said. “Serial killer Angelo Buono (the Hillside Strangler) was on my case load. He was my ‘tier tender,’ charged with sweeping, mopping and emptying trash cans. He always denied responsibility for his crimes and blamed his partner (Kenneth Bianchi).”
L’Etoile is now working on the third entry in the Penley-Newberry series, along with short stories for two anthologies. Meanwhile, his literary agent is shopping his three completed standalone novels to publishers.
One of those manuscripts is a “mirror opposite of the procedural stuff I’ve been doing,” L’Etoile said. Set in a coastal town “very similar to Bodega Bay,” it follows a convicted murderer just released from prison after 15 years. His struggle is to prove he didn’t kill a young girl, and that journey will put his own life in jeopardy.
“When I started out in prison, I never would have thought it would lead to a career as an author,” L’Etoile said in his typical modest voice. “I’m excited to find out where it takes me next.”
If you go
Author visit with James L’Etoile
When: 6:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Tarbell Room, Lincoln Public Library, 485 Twelve Bridges Road, Lincoln
More information: 916-434-2410, jamesletoile.com
Worth noting: L’Etoile and his registered therapy dog, Emma, conduct a monthly reading program for children the last Sunday of each month at Face In A Book bookstore, 4359 Town Center Blvd, El Dorado Hills; 916-941-9401, getyourfaceinabook.com. L’Etoile will also be at Book Passage’s Mystery Writers Conference, Sept. 27-30, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera; 415-927-0960, bookpassage.com.