It wasn’t been a good year for Delilah West, Maxine O’Callaghan’s fictional Orange County private eye.
In February, West found a missing woman who had been described by her distraught husband as suffering from recurring bouts of amnesia. But after West told the husband where his wife was staying, he showed up at the motel and blew her away with a .357 magnum. For that, West nearly lost her investigator’s license and the county threatened to charge her with being an accessory to murder.
In April, West served a subpoena to a drug dealer who straight-armed her over a stoop, resulting in a broken arm, two cracked ribs and 23 stitches in her thigh.
In May, her insurance company declared her a bad risk and canceled her policy.
In June, her car died.
In August, business was so bad that she was forced to give up her apartment and begin sleeping on the floor of her office in Santa Ana. And in December, still struggling to make ends meet, she began moonlighting as a waitress.
Now it’s January and, as O’Callaghan’s new Delilah West mystery opens, the down-on-her-luck private eye’s fortunes still haven’t improved: She is nearly run down by a black Trans Am that does hit--and kill--an old man on a rain-slick street in Santa Ana. Or so it seems. . . .
After a 7-year absence and a bit the worse for wear, Delilah West is back in “Hit and Run” (St. Martin’s Press; $14.95).
West’s comeback, in what Publishers Weekly calls “a funny, poignant, surprising mystery,” has been a long time coming for the Mission Viejo writer who created the female detective for a short story that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1974.
The tough-yet-feminine character didn’t make her book debut until 1981 in “Death Is Forever,” the first in a series of paperbacks for Raven House Mysteries. In that one, Delilah sets out to solve the murder of her husband, the other half of the West and West Detective Agency who is killed on the bluffs above Dana Point. That was followed a year later with “Run From Nightmare,” in which the still-grieving widow is hired to find a young Orange County woman who vanished in a small, fictional town in Riverside County.
O’Callaghan said she always wanted to do another Delilah West mystery. In fact, “Hit and Run” was at the publishing house being edited in 1982 when Raven House’s parent company, Worldwide Library, discontinued its mystery line.
But while the rights to “Hit and Run” reverted to O’Callaghan, the process took more than 2 years to complete. By then, O’Callaghan had acquired a new agent who attempted to sell “Hit and Run” as a package deal with the reprint rights to the first two books.
“It didn’t really go,” O’Callaghan said. “I don’t know why, but it didn’t. By this time, there had been a passage of time since ‘Hit and Run’ was written and we decided that I would rewrite it.”
Although the basic story is the same, O’Callaghan said she rewrote the novel extensively.
“Hit and Run” originally was to have taken place 6 months after the action in “Run From Nightmare.” But in rewriting the book, O’Callaghan updated it to take place 5 years after the death of West’s husband.
“By doing that, it changed the book enormously,” she said. “In particular, it changed the tone of the book. Now, she’s not the grieving widow anymore and I think it let me lighten the tone. I think there is a lot more humor in the third book.”
The rewrite paid off. St. Martin’s Press, the first publishing house to receive the manuscript, snapped it up.
Kevin Moore, manager of the Anaheim central library and a leading West Coast scholar on the contemporary mystery, is pleased to see Delilah West’s comeback in “Hit and Run,” which also marks the character’s first time in hardback.
“I think it’s better than the paperback (books),” Moore said. “She’s tightened up the writing and it’s more descriptive, and I think her handle on the character is better. You get a better sense of the person. Delilah West is not a superwoman. She’s feminine and realistic and her abilities match the skills and abilities of an ordinary person. I’ve read a lot of the other female (mystery) writers and I think at this point, Maxine compares favorably to Linda Barnes, Marcia Muller, Julie Smith and Sue Dunlap.”
If O’Callaghan has grown as a writer since the last Delilah West mystery in 1982, it is because she hasn’t stopped writing.
In that time, she had two thrillers (“The Bogeyman” and “Dark Visions”) and a romance novel (“Dangerous Charade”) published. A longtime member and current president of Fictionaires, an elite Orange County writing workshop, O’Callaghan gives credit to the 25-member group “for my development as a writer.”
In the years since Delilah West was last seen plying the mean streets of Orange County, two other fictional private investigators have appeared on the scene: Robert Ray’s Newport Beach-based Matt Murdock and A.E. Maxwell’s Fiddler, who works out of his beach cottage north of Laguna Beach.
O’Callaghan’s Santa Ana-based female private eye, however, is not quite like her more hard-boiled brethren in the mystery field.
“She brings female sensibilities to it,” O’Callaghan said. “I think she has more sensitivity. She obviously doesn’t have the male physical abilities. She is not plunging in and punching somebody out. She doesn’t carry a gun unless she feels imminently threatened. I think she tends more toward persuasion and guile.”
As often happens in fiction, readers sometimes confuse the Delilah West character with her creator. O’Callaghan, who has been married 32 years, has two grown children and is now a grandmother, laughs at the notion.
“Everyone assumes when you do a woman character like this, particularly when you do it in a first-person format, that it’s you. It isn’t, but I think she probably has a lot of characteristics of mine, or characteristics I wish I had more of. And I do identify with her. She’s very independent and she never gives up on anything. She has incredible tenacity. I really see myself as never giving up. And, I think, you have to do that to be a writer.”
O’Callaghan said she had always wanted to write but did not begin writing short stories until she and her family moved to Mission Viejo from Chicago in 1972. By then, her two children were in school and she finally had the time.
“When I write, I tend to be totally involved in what I’m doing,” she said. “I can’t just seem to write an hour or 2 hours a day. I have to have a block of time and I become so involved in the writing I tend to be doing it even when I’m not at the typewriter or word processor.”
O’Callaghan said that when she began writing her first Delilah West mystery in 1979, she chose Orange County for the setting “simply because I live here. It’s a lot easier to write about where you live. And then, too, I think there have been a lot of private eyes in L.A. and I was looking for something a little fresher.”
At the time, Orange County may have been a little too fresh. “Editors back East would say, ‘Orange County? What is this?’ They don’t really do that too much anymore. I think the word has gotten around.”
As a writer, O’Callaghan still views Orange County--with its ethnic diversity, big business, large-scale land developments, and contrasting areas of wealth and poverty--as a rich vein of material for a fiction writer to tap. “I just think it’s absolutely ripe with plot developments down here,” she said.
Although for her, the return of Delilah West in “Hit and Run” feels like a “big comeback,” O’Callaghan acknowledges that “it’s not big in terms of national promotion or a huge first printing or anything.”
She shrugs that off by saying simply, “Facts of life.”
“Private eye novels typically don’t generate that sort of thing,” she said. “You have to generate a following. It’s the kind of thing that grows. Robert Parker is a good example with his Spenser series. I don’t think his original novels were huge successes, but the character caught on and it grew. John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series is a perfect example, too. You have to build an audience for private eyes.”
O’Callaghan, who is currently writing a horror novel which has been sold to Pocketbooks, would like to see Delilah West given a chance to develop an audience. St. Martin’s Press has expressed interest in her doing another one, she said, but “we’ll just have to wait and see.
“I definitely want to do more books on her. I have a real soft spot in my heart for Delilah West.”