T. Jefferson Parker is one of those writers who quietly and incrementally has been building a loyal following. This hasn't been easy, since Parker has more often than not eschewed the creation of a recurring character. While three of his novels (THE BLUE HOUR, BLACK LIGHT and BLACK WATER) have featured detective Merci Rayborn, most of his books have been stand-alone works, with Parker choosing to let each of his novels rise or fall on its own merits. The result, deliberately or otherwise, is that one truly never knows what is going to happen in a T. Jefferson Parker novel. The only certainty that one has upon cracking the binding of a new Parker book is that it will make that reader's "Best Novel" list for that particular year.
CALIFORNIA GIRL is no exception to this rule. It is a story that spans four decades, from 1960 to the present. The primary focus of the novel, however, is 1968. The setting is southern California, the site of a cultural and political maelstrom that continues to have ramifications to this day. The Becker brothers have taken different vocational paths: one is a homicide detective, one a reporter, and one a minister. Yet their paths are going to cross, and dramatically so, when the mutilated body of Janelle Vonn is discovered in an abandoned warehouse. Vonn was a woman who seemed doomed to a bad end almost from the day she was born, and the crowd that she ran with --- druggies, surfers and musicians --- fed into her seeming penchant for self-destruction. Each of the Becker brothers had their own unique tie, past or present, to Vonn, and thus each tries in his own separate way to find her murderer and bring him to justice.
Parker captures the southern California era of the late 1960s perfectly, and anyone who lived through it will feel a number of familiar tugs while reading CALIFORNIA GIRL. Parker gets those all-important secondary details down nicely --- I had forgotten all about Sugar Rice Crinkles, and would love a bowlful right about now --- making the evocation of the era all the more real. More importantly, however, this is a meticulously crafted mystery, a masterfully told tale of love and passion gone wrong and ultimately made right.
CALIFORNIA GIRL is a haunting work, one that provides a satisfying ending in lieu of a happy one. As with the majority of Parker's novels, there will not be a sequel here, but one is not necessary. It stands alone, and well.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub