Giving Evil Its Due

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As head of the Sheriff's Department's Crimes Against Youth unit, Terry Naughton has encountered his share of "kiddie-sex creeps."

But not even Naughton, the troubled hero of T. Jefferson Parker's new Orange County-set crime thriller, has seen anything like the snake-obsessed child predator who calls himself the Horridus--Latin for a type of rattlesnake.

A polite video-camera operator for a dating service by day, the Horridus plucks his young victims--girls ages 5 and 6--from their beds late at night. The next morning they're found abandoned, with their hands taped behind their backs. And they're wearing black velvet hoods without eyeholes and white, gauzy tunics on which their kidnapper leaves a bizarre calling card tucked into the folds: a barely visible snake scale.

So far, the victims have been found dazed but physically unharmed. But if an FBI profile is correct, it's only a matter of time before the Horridus' strange fantasy will escalate to rape and murder.

"Where Serpents Lie" (Hyperion; $23.95) is Parker's sixth novel since "Laguna Heat," the 1985 mystery thriller that thrust him into the national spotlight and challenged the stereotype of Orange County as a conservative, bland maze of suburban tract houses and shopping malls.

Novelists ranging from Dean Koontz to Joseph Wambaugh to Judith Krantz--not to mention the authors of several series detective novels--have tapped into the reality of Orange County in the '80s and '90s: a high-energy, complex, multicultural and multiethnic society that spans the moneyed glitz of Newport Beach to the gritty barrios of Santa Ana to the Vietnamese shopping mecca in Westminster's Little Saigon.

But it is Parker, through his Orange County-set mysteries--"Little Saigon," "Pacific Beat," "Summer of Fear," "The Triggerman's Dance"--who has earned a reputation as perhaps the most identifiable chronicler of Orange County, a place where benign appearances can indeed be deceiving.

As book critic Carolyn See once put it: "Like Raymond Chandler before him, Parker has insisted that the bland surface of Southern California covers a nest of corruption--a sequined bedspread draped over a mattress soaked in blood."

Like his novelistic vision of Orange County, Parker's heroes are not without a dark side.

In "Where Serpents Lie," Terry Naughton's mission to protect children is motivated by not being able to save his own 5-year-old son from dying in the ocean two years earlier.

Now divorced and cheating on the woman he's living with, the guilt-ridden Naughton until recently has been drinking almost a fifth of tequila and nearly a six pack of beer a night--to the point of frequently blacking out.

And, in a plot twist that amps up the suspense, photos turn up that appear to show Naughton having sex with a young girl in the Laguna Canyon cave where he'd often do his drinking.

Hyperion, Parker's publisher since "The Triggerman's Dance" (1996), is promoting "Where Serpents Lie" as his "breakout novel." It's not just a compelling thriller but an intense psychological suspense story.

"It's probably the first book I've written since 'Laguna Heat' where I self-consciously tried to throttle the reader with about every page," says Parker, 44, in an interview in his Laguna Beach home, a wood-sided house on stilts high above Laguna Canyon, where he lives with his wife, Rita, and his 6-year-old stepson. Rita, a paralegal for a medical group, is expecting their first child in August.

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Early reviews of "Where Serpents Lie" have been mixed.

Publishers Weekly calls it "a gripping thriller." The American Library Assn.'s Booklist rhapsodizes that "even jaded, can't-scare-me horror readers will shiver at the often poetic Parker's latest offering."

But Kirkus Reviews calls it "another intelligently written, well-researched genre clone from Parker, whose skill at mimicking (and, at times, improving on) B-movies style formula fiction can be marvelous, when it isn't so annoyingly unoriginal."

Parker takes the negative review in stride. Nursing a mug of coffee at his dining room table, he grins: "I'm batting .666--I'm two for three."

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Parker, who was born in Los Angeles and moved to Tustin with his family in 1959 at age 5, graduated with a degree in English from UC Irvine in 1976. A former Orange County newspaper reporter--for the weekly Newport Ensign and the Daily Pilot--he wrote "Laguna Heat" nights and weekends in the early '80s while working as a technical editor in the Irvine office of Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp.

A full-time novelist since the debut of "Laguna Heat," Parker says the idea for "Where Serpents Lie" came to him during the night a few years ago.

"I woke up from a hideous nightmare. It was one of those paranoid dreams where the whole world thinks you did something that you really didn't do--that you're innocent and can't prove it," he says.

"I felt like Terry felt midway through the book, and I thought it would be just a great mixture to have a guy out there trying to repair his own soul by doing something good for someone else and yet being cut off at the knees by this scandal."

Parker says he got out of bed and scribbled a few notes on a pad by the phone and then fleshed out the idea the next day.

"After getting to know Rita and getting to know some of my friends who are parents, it appears to me that there's no stronger feeling in the world than the desire to protect your own children. It just raises great emotions and even the most placid and peaceful of my friends become savages when they talk about what they would do to the guy who tried to do something to their kid."

With the Polly Klass kidnap-murder case in mind and newspaper stories talking about child porn on the Internet, Parker created what he felt would be a parent's worst nightmare: A sexual predator who could pluck their children from their own beds.

Except for a Night Stalker-inspired serial killer in "Summer of Fear," Parker says he's always created antagonists who have somehow been wronged by society--or perceive themselves as having been wronged--and are seeking vengeance.

"So this was my first real attempt to create a guy who's kind of evil through and through."

In creating the snake-loving Horridus who thinks of himself in reptilian terms and has an extensive collection of snakes, Parker was able to tap his own lifelong interest in reptiles.

The writer's got nearly a dozen snakes in cages in his office--mostly kings and "harmless, little rosy boas" found on hikes in the nearby hills. Says Parker: "I think they're beautiful and secretive. I like the way they move and the whole idea of going out and finding them. It's a hunt."

The idea of incorporating snakes into the novel, he says, "kind of dovetailed with the idea that I was trying to create a really evil guy and I was dealing with a really kind of spooky, dark, forbidden subject in a lot of ways. It seemed to me a perfect totem or a metaphor of what's going on."

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A bizarre antagonist who is not what he seems to the outside world fits in perfectly with Parker's penchant for taking what he calls Orange County's "safe, ideal and bland" image and turning it on its heels.

"I like the low sprawl that is Orange County," he says. "People are always intrigued about what happens here, and, for better or worse, they're always willing to believe a little bit more than they would of another place," Parker says as he sips his coffee.

"They do kind of think it's the land of fruit and nuts--still. So if you have some guy like the Horridus turning around and putting snake scales and angel robes on children, they go, 'Oh yeah, that must happen every day.'

"I mean, they want to believe that. They love to believe that. It's part of their fun."

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