When thinking of mysteries set in California, Raymond Chandler’s or James Ellroy’s Los Angeles, Joseph Wambaugh’s or Michael Connelly’s LAPD cop shops, Sue Grafton’s Santa Teresa or Walter Mosley’s segregated South Los Angeles no doubt come to mind.
Arguably equal to these greats is T. Jefferson Parker, winner of three Edgar Awards, the highest U.S. mystery prize, and bestselling author of the new thriller “The Last Good Guy.” Gender notwithstanding, Parker and the others have created protagonists who, despite their personal flaws, adhere to the standard Chandler set almost 75 years ago when writing of crime’s knights-errant: “He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”
Unlike crime writers who focus more on Los Angeles and points north, Parker’s world is primarily the southernmost reaches of California, from Orange County down to San Diego and across Imperial County, with some notable sojourns to Mexico. Parker is equally comfortable writing standalone as well as series mysteries; two of his three Edgars were for the standalones “Silent Joe” and “California Girl.” Yet there are enough fans of Parker’s Laguna Beach detective Merci Rayborn and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy (and occasional ATF collaborator) Charlie Hood to argue that Parker should continue working the series side of SoCal’s mean streets.
Parker began his latest series in 2017 featuring Roland Ford, a cop-turned-Marine-turned-private-eye based in Fallbrook in north San Diego County. After two mysteries exploring Ford’s psychological wounds from service in Fallujah and his wife’s death in a plane crash comes “The Last Good Guy,” out this month.
The novel steers readers through one of the most time-honored tropes in the hard-boiled genre — a beautiful woman enters a P.I.’s office needing help locating a missing loved one. The scene is set in the novel’s opening pages: “She will tell the investigator a story and offer him money to find the truth of it, and when he does, nothing will be the same for either of them, ever again.”
In this case, it’s Penelope Rideout, a 28-year-old technical writer married to a Marine pilot. Penelope is the guardian for kid sister Daley, a 14-year-old with a wild streak. The teen has been missing since sneaking out of school with a 20-year-old dog walker whom Penelope calls a “guaranteed loser.” Ford drives to the young man’s condo in search of Daley and instead finds the young man brutally murdered. The investigator learns from a neighbor that Penelope’s sister left, seemingly willingly, with two clean-cut men driving an SUV with a round blue emblem on the driver’s door.
Ford’s investigation leads him to Daley’s private school in Carlsbad and a teen club where Daley and her friends hung out and met boys, and which Ford notes also is frequented by older men. Among them is Adam Revell, a sturdy, 30-ish employee of SNR Security, which protects the club and whose logo seems similar to the emblem on the car seen leaving the murder scene. Ford follows Revell to a north San Diego County megachurch led by Pastor Reggie Atlas and eventually to a date farm near Buena Vista, a sleepy town in Imperial County that straddles the Mexico border. Hoping he might find Daley Rideout on the premises, Ford’s covert surveillance of the farm is interrupted by six helmeted and goggled men, who beat Ford to within an inch of his life.
That’s only the beginning of the P.I.’s relentless pursuit of the headstrong teen, a journey that quickly casts doubt on everything he assumes about the case. Is Penelope, toward whom Ford feels a growing attraction, lying about her relationship with her husband and her sister? What role does the affable Pastor Reggie play in the community and with the Rideout family? And what is SNR Security’s real purpose out on that date farm?
Aided and abetted by a group of residents called the Irregulars who rent casitas on his Fallbrook ranch, Ford demonstrates a dogged determination to get to the truth and do the right thing by Daley and Penelope. In so doing, he uncovers a couple of villains who are among the most chilling Parker has ever written and a nasty conspiracy that strikes at the heart of our democracy in all-too-plausible ways.
At one point in the search for Daley, Penelope calls the P.I. “one of the last good guys,” an acknowledgment not only of Ford’s character but also his place in the pantheon of “good enough” men and women Chandler singled out as heroes of the genre.
“The Last Good Guy” is the best Roland Ford mystery yet, and one of Parker’s strongest. It’s a twisty cautionary tale that will leave readers pondering the damage done in the name of misguided religious fervor and patriotism and yearning for more good guys like Ford to bring justice to our world.
T. Jefferson Parker
Putnam: 352 pages; $27
Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.