A First-Time Author Finds Crime Does Pay : T. Jefferson Parker Tries the Murder Route for a Mystery Novel Set in Orange County

Times Staff Writer

T. Jefferson Parker passes by the scene of the crime every day while driving through picturesque Laguna Canyon between his home in Laguna Beach and his job in Irvine.

It’s on Laguna Canyon Road that homicide detective Tom Shephard drove that early August morning after Tim Algernon’s body was discovered--his face and body burned beyond recognition, a blackened rock protruding from his forehead and more than a thousand dollars in bills stuffed down his throat.

Detective Shephard and victim Algernon are characters in “Laguna Heat” (St. Martin’s Press, $15.95), a colorful mystery-thriller set in Orange County.

And T. Jefferson Parker, a former Orange County journalist known less grandiosely to newspaper readers--and his friends--as Jeff Parker, is its author.

Hometown Boy

Parker’s introspective hero, Tom Shephard, is a hometown boy who has returned to Laguna Beach as the new--and sole--member of the police department’s homicide division. Life hasn’t been easy for Shephard of late: He’s not only suffering the emotional aftermath of a divorce, he’s seeing a therapist for having accidentally killed a boy in a police shoot-out in Los Angeles.


But if Shephard thinks his life will be serene in the peaceful seaside community, his respite is shattered once Laguna’s old-guard citizens start turning up torched to death, and his investigation leads him from the super-rich confines of Newport Beach to the gritty streets of Santa Ana--and a confrontation with his own family’s past.

It was on a recent serene and warm Southern California summer evening that Parker, cool and calm at 31, sat sipping a glass of ice water on the small patio of his modest one-bedroom apartment. His residence is a former vacation cottage built in the ‘20s at the foot of a hill not far from the Laguna Beach police station where Parker’s fictional homicide detective works.

Casually clad in blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, Parker was unwinding after a day of work as a technical editor in the Irvine office of Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp. Just that afternoon he and his co-workers in the air defense division had learned that the project they were working on, the controversial Sgt. York anti-aircraft gun, had been canceled and that they probably would be laid off.

But he still had ample reason to feel as content as his fat calico cat, Samantha, who padded lazily across the patio into the open kitchen door.

After all, Parker has finally joined the ranks of “published author,” a dream five years--and six drafts--in the making. Hollywood also has come a-calling with offers to translate “Laguna Heat” onto the screen.

“It’s really thrilling to me; it just feels good to have everything happen,” said Parker, who treated himself to a word processor with part of the “modest” advance he received for his novel.

Tanned, trim and sandy brown-haired with a penchant for wearing stylish clothes, Parker’s classically Southern California appearance belies the world of torture, murder and dark secrets that cuts through the picture-post card setting of “Laguna Heat” like one of the proverbial Santa Ana winds that inevitably blows through his and other novels set in Raymond Chandler country.

Parker gives the impression that he’d be more at home writing a lighter tale, one set amid Orange County’s fun-in-the-sun beach crowd. As it turns out, his first attempt at writing a novel in 1978 had just that sort of setting.

“It was a sloppily written manuscript copy about a professional surfer in Newport Beach,” he said, adding with a smile that “I kind of knew in my heart of hearts it wasn’t really publishable.”

Parker showed the manuscript to one editor, a “buddy” of his, “who liked it, but told me nobody was interested in surfing. He said, ‘Write something people are interested in.’ ” Parker grinned: “So I went to murder and mayhem.”

Not a Hard-Boiled Fan

Although he says he has read “everything Raymond Chandler ever wrote,” Parker admits that “I’ve never really been a passionate, hard-boiled detective-novel fan.”

Regarding the favorable trade review of his novel from Kirkus Reviews, which referred to him as being “cut from the same cloth as Chandler,” Parker acknowledged that “it’s extremely flattering, but kind of embarrassing too. I mean, this guy (Chandler) was awesome.”

While admitting he set out to write “Laguna Heat” for commercial reasons, Parker said he also felt the novel would be “a good way to get into self-exploration: to explore the idea that people have to take good, hard, solid looks at themselves to remain true to themselves.”

In the novel, Detective Shephard is “forced to investigate himself,” Parker said. “I was intrigued with the idea that, as a professional detective, he would have to investigate this murder, and later on in the book his professional obligations become personal obligations, in that he’s investigating his family, his friends, his past.”

Fascinating Community

Parker said Laguna Beach, which has been his home for five years, appealed to him as the setting for his novel, “first of all because I live here and I like writing about where I am. I think it’s a fascinating community with a lot of different people doing different things and it’s visual--it’s beautiful here.”

Born in Los Angeles, Parker moved to Tustin with his family when he was 5 years old. He attended Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa for two years before transferring to UC Irvine, where he earned a degree in English in late 1976.

After a year in which “I waited tables, went to Europe for two or three months--just a whole lot of nothing,” Parker began his journalism career when he was hired to write movie reviews for the weekly Newport Ensign, where he quickly progressed to writing feature stories and doing “basic cub reporting.”

Parker, who became a polished feature writer and won several Orange County Press Club writing awards, was hired in 1980 by the Daily Pilot in Costa Mesa where he continued to write movie reviews in addition to reporting and writing features.

Sitting at Typewriter

By then, Parker already had begun working on “Laguna Heat,” making a point of sitting at his typewriter from 7 to 11 five evenings a week.

“I made up my mind that when I didn’t feel like doing it, I did it anyway,” he said, adding, “It is labor; it is hard; it takes time, but it’s always been very enjoyable to me. And when you’re hot--when you’re writing well--it’s a real pleasure.”

Although he had taken numerous creative writing classes in school--primarily poetry--Parker said he was always too “intimidated” to tackle a “Writing the Novel” class. He concedes, however, that “it probably would have saved time. I wrote the thing (“Laguna Heat”) six times. That’s a lot of false turns, so it was a teaching process.”

Parker’s best writing classroom was on the job, writing for newspapers.

“I basically learned to write from my first editor at the Ensign: how to write basic, declarative sentences, to be clear--just the basic responsibility of getting as close to the truth as you can. And, just the sheer volume of the stuff . . . you get pretty proficient at writing basic stuff. It also taught me that writing is plastic: The editor can cut and splice and hack away. You get used to the idea that what you’re writing can be changed and cut--and improved.”

Writing for newspapers had other advantages for a fledgling novelist, he said.

Meet Interesting People

“You get to meet a lot of interesting people. I covered cops and city hall for both the Ensign and the Pilot and did a couple of investigative pieces. A lot of that found its way into the book. A lot of police procedure stuff I picked up working for the papers.”

One of the most colorful characters Parker interviewed during his newspaper days was the late bounty hunter, Tiny Boyles, who claimed to have been arrested 107 times before he was 18 and who had been shot twice. Parker used Boyles as the model for Little Theodore, Shephard’s massive, bearded biker friend in the novel.

“Tiny was great--6-foot-4, 360 pounds, and he swore like crazy. I interviewed him at some breakfast house out in Stanton where he ate two full chicken-fried steak breakfasts, two orders of hash browns and drank a gigantic pot of coffee. In the interview back at his house, he dragged out all the ordnance: a .357 magnum, a 20-gauge shotgun and a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun.

“He was so much larger than life I just couldn’t pass him up.”

Real-Life Character

Another “Laguna Heat” character is modeled after another real-life person, Parker’s next-door neighbor Sal, who appears in the novel as Shephard’s neighbor.

“Sal is the only guy I used by name in the book. He’s a minor character--a loud, bellowing Italian,” Parker said, grinning: “Sal digs being in the book. He’s shown everybody the passages.”

Parker said he quit his job at the Daily Pilot and took the job as technical editor at Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp. in 1982 because “it sounded interesting and the pay was better.”

The job switch was also more conducive to writing his novel, although it wasn’t the idea of writing all day for a newspaper and then putting in another four hours of writing at night that bothered Parker.

“It was just the physical work,” he said. “I didn’t feel so much mentally drained as physically because of the hustle and bustle and the pressure. And I felt I needed a change.”

Parker said the publication of his first novel has not made any dramatic changes in his life.

Vote of Confidence

“I think . . . the most important way it changed my life is it gave me the initial vote of confidence every first writer needs. Getting published was my entire goal. As far as the day-to-day living goes, nothing has changed. I still work and write five nights a week.”

Parker said he decided to use T. Jefferson Parker, rather than Jeff Parker, as his literary byline because “it seemed to me like it would be more distinctive and memorable. It is my full name so I just opted for formality and used it. The ‘T’ doesn’t stand for anything.” He laughed. “I think my parents had visions of naming me after Thomas Jefferson and couldn’t quite pull it off.”

Parker said the novel’s trendy title, “Laguna Heat,” was chosen by his publishers, who nixed his original title, “The Fire Sermon.” “They thought ‘The Fire Sermon’ would conjure up religious connotations that would turn off book buyers. It was basically a commercial consideration, and I think it worked in terms of marketing.”

Movie Offers

Indeed, the novel is already into its second printing, which a St. Martin’s Press spokeswoman called “pretty extraordinary” for a first novel, particularly before all the reviews are in. Parker said he also has received a couple of “really solid” movie and TV movie offers. He’s not adverse to seeing “Laguna Heat” go Hollywood.

“I think it’s terrific, wonderful, great if they want to make a movie out of it,” he said. “You want to see your book done right, but I think it would be exciting.”

Parker, who occasionally goes body surfing and works out in a gym a couple of times a week to stay in shape, has a rather unusual hobby, a hold-over from childhood. Once or twice a year, he drives out to the desert at night with friends to bag snakes, lizards and other “creepy crawly” things.

“I enjoy the whole ritual of it: cruising slowly on lightly traveled roads at night with the bright lights on. We keep them (the reptiles) for a while and look at them, and then let them go. I don’t bring them home anymore. I kept them as a kid and I would constantly take them around the neighborhood and scare the girls and mothers.”

Working on Next Novel

Parker is already three months and three chapters into his next novel, a thriller about a crippled Vietnam veteran investigating the disappearance of his wife in the Little Saigon area of Orange County.

Anticipating a layoff at Ford Aerospace, Parker said he has enough money saved to live on for six months, which would allow him time to work full time on his novel.

For Parker, his motivation for writing is simple:

“I really, really, really love great, great writing and I would like to be able to make some of my own some day. When you read something that makes tears come to your eyes or your heart pound really fast, it’s great. So I think a lot of that (motivation to write) is just wanting to do that.”

Does he think his first novel comes close to that?

“No way,” he said without hesitation. “I think that first novel is a good first novel. It’s a good story, clearly written . . . but it’s just a beginning.”

His next novel, he believes, will surpass the first.

“I think it will be a lot better. Like anything else (as a writer), you grow in levels. I think book one to book two is going to be a quantum leap, I really do . . . I hope so.”