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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

California Girl - (Due Nov 10) Add Your Comments!

I will start reading this soon. Feel free to post your comments about the book here, but save any spoiler type comments until after Nov 10.

I will say that I have read several of Parker's books and have enjoyed them a lot. He creates great lead characters, usually quite conflicted. I especially loved the 3 part series with Deputy Merci Rayborn spelled out in The Blue Hour, Red Light, and Black Water. I am looking forward to California Girl!

You can visit Parker's own website here. On that page is a list of links to author interviews - always a fascinating insight into a book.

Here is a really fun interview of Parker conducted by Harlen Coben (one of my recent fav authors). An author interviews an author. It is posted on the site of Mystery Readers International - the major mystery fan organization which votes the Macavity awards.

First let me say that my library mystery book club (the non-virtual one) rated the book quite high. Of seven readers, six thought it was a terrific book.

OK, here are my comments about California Girl:

In some ways this book defies categorization; is it a “novel” or a mystery? Or put differently, is it a story with themes about family struggles and conflicts, public personas and private secrets, or is it a plot of suspense and a crime to be solved. This book is clearly both.

Many mystery books, best-seller or otherwise, fall into the category of “thriller” or “who dunnit?” that are heavy on plot and light on character, and especially the development of character. Using examples familiar to our library book club from last year, Riggs, Tappley, Healey, and Flora all come to mind. If there is any extensive character development, it is to make the motive of a psychopathic maniac somehow believable. Deaver and Gerritson come to mind.

On the other hand, many books deal entirely with family conflicts over a period of time. I am not much of a reader outside of the mystery genre, but isn’t this what James Mitchner did (Texas, Virginia, etc)? Not to mention many others that focus on the evolution of families. Some may feel that Parker does too much of this. Publisher’s weekly bends in this direction with the comment: “Readers should think mainstream novel rather than thriller and prepare to wait patiently for the rewards offered by this intricately plotted tale.”

Yet this book won the Edgar for best mystery novel in 2005. So clearly the eight panelists at the Mystery Writers of America felt it was not only a mystery, but the best of the year. Incidentally, there are typically around 500 competing titles for this award.

If you were to imagine a contiuum of 1 to 10 with 10 being a mystery/thriller focused almost entirely on plot with little to no description of character beyond the minimum, and 1 being a “mainstream novel” with no mystery plot worked in at all… where does California Girl fall? Is it satisfying to the mystery lover?

My answer is maybe a “5” – and yes it was satisfying as a mystery. I also enjoyed following the theme of life expectations and realities as seen from a variety of family viewpoints: The Vonns, The Beckers, The Stoltzes, and The Lobdells. Lofty expectations for love, for marriage, for child-raising are all central to the story as well as the events that thwart these hopes. These thwarting events include the world at large (Vietnam war, local politics, cultural pressures) as well as individuals and their psycho-social-sexual needs that are at odds with other family members.

Would I read another book by this author (#10)? Yes. But to be honest, I have read some of Parker’s other books which I liked even more than this one, in particular the three book series with Sheriff Deputy Merci Dearborn. That probably colors my thinking at least a little.

This book begins with a first person point of view in chapter 1 and then concludes with the same first person point of view in the last 3 chapters. The intervening 35 chapters are told as narrative. The narrative serves as one long flashback spanning the years 1954 – 1970. In a way, Parker is essentially providing the prologue and epilogue in the present, without calling it that.

The specifics (using the my ranking form as a guide).

Did the book get my interest? Well the first chapter did that. Then you have to hang in there for a while since the next several chapters are not about the mystery plot, but rather with the background to the conflict that drives the principle characters.

Plot solution? Well, he does a pretty good job with credible red herrings. Beyond Cory Bonnet (the drug dealer convicted of the crime) and Roger Stoltz (the businessman and US Congressman ultimately proven to be the bad guy) there were a host of possibilities: Janelle’s brothers; David Becker, Howard Langton (the coach accused of the other murder at the same time and friend of David; Terry Neemal (the Wolfman homeless guy); Barbara Becker (I thought she would protect David and the Chapel at any cost); and Jonas Dessinger (the obnoxious news publisher and Andy’s boss).

Nevertheless, though Parker kept me guessing, I sure suspected Stoltz the most, but not because of the possessive love motive —more because of some political belief conflict. It was also clear from the first chapter that the one that would be accused would be accused wrongly. Finally, the very moment that Nick Becker orders the finger and thumb to be frozen, you know that DNA will become the final solution at the end of the book.

Was the solution credible? It was in every way but one. I have a bit of trouble picturing Stoltz getting into the beheading gore. I consider it partly credible because he would be desperate enough to try to cover his tracks, and sawing off the head was probably seen by this character as necessary to throw off any investigation – which it did.

Suspense and tension? Not so much in the classic thriller way, like Harlan Coben or Jeffrey Deaver. The tension was more a matter of personal conflicts-- binds in which characters found themselves, like David vs the FBI nuts; Andy and his love life; Andy and his bosses; Nick and Lucky Lobdell; Max and Monica and the way they responded to Clay throughout their lives; and so on. So I gave a mediocre score to the book on this point, because I think of this grading point more in the classical way. I make up for this later.

Setting? This surely includes, not just the California locales, but the historical periods of the 50s and 60s. This was really, really fun. And Parker does it really well, much better than, say, Stuart Kaminsky in Mildred Pierced. Kaminsky, I felt, got carried away with bits of trivia and it became almost obvious that he was trying to find a paragraph to insert the name of a song from the period. Parker slips these things in seamlessly. OK, the contact points of his family with Nixon and Manson are maybe a bit much--- yet it was believable in the context.

Along that line, the dialog was totally believable given the setting and characters.

It is interesting that all of the Becker boys are central characters. Yet Parker favors Nick as he is the first-person voice at the start and the end. Using the words of our grading question, none of the boys are admirable or hero types. Possibly not so likable. They are however interesting because they are all flawed, and so also appealing because of that!

In all, I gave it a score of 91 – a good A-.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is one of the saddest mysteries I have read in many years. The awful childhood of the victim, her involvement in the wierdness of late 60's California culture, and her brutal death is overwhelming. Just as sad are the repercussions of her death over the decades since. This is truly a morality tale. Parker drives home the commandment "thou shalt not kill."

2009 POLL #2--Do Mystery Stories and Political Bias Mix? What is closest to your view?