T. Jefferson Parker
Hyperion reprint edition 2002 416 pages
Mass market paperback $7.99
I have a signed copy of Laguna Heat, T. Jefferson Parker’s first mystery novel. It was a gift from a friend. My wife and I were living not far from Laguna at the time and it was a huge treat to receive the book. Everyone in Orange County was talking about it.
A few years later I met Parker when he was a speaker at an unusual college course on forensic science. In class, Parker talked about his book, his background as a newspaper reporter and some of the details of writing a good mystery story.
Here’s Parker’s first sentence in Laguna Heat: “A perfect morning in a city of perfect mornings; an artist would have worked, a god would have rested.” On his blog he says he was proud of that sentence. But it was the next two sentences, especially the metaphor at the end, that I remember:
“The convertible slowed as it approached the stables, then pounced from the road onto a gravel driveway. Its headlights swung left-to-right, acute angles filling with dust, while gravel popped under the tires like grease in a skillet.”
Laguna Heat was a hit. It became a TV movie starring Harry Hamlin, Jason Robards and Rip Torn. Parker’s career was set. Since that time, he’s written 20 novels and picked up three Edgar awards. Silent Joe earned Parker his first Edgar in 2000 and it does not take a detective to see why the first-person novel about “acid baby” Joe won the award. If you’re looking for a place to acquire a taste for T. Jefferson, this is a good starting point.
Joe Trona is a 24-year-old Orange County Sheriff’s deputy assigned to jail duty. Many evenings, he serves as driver and often guard for his adopted father Will, a kind-hearted but dishonest county supervisor. The extent of his dishonesty, albeit with mostly good intentions, is exposed slowly to Joe throughout the novel. One evening as Joe is escorting his father Will on an errand that includes rescuing a young girl who apparently has been kidnapped, Will is trapped and murdered in an alley while Joe looks on, unable to dispatch all of his father’s attackers.
The balance of the book is Joe’s search for Will Trona’s killers. Along the way, Joe revisits his painful past. His birth father poured acid on Joe’s face when he was a baby, forever scaring him. Five years, later Will adopted Joe from an orphanage, an act of kindness that Joe has never forgotten. When he grew up, Joe went into law enforcement.
When possible, Joe wears a hat pulled low over his face. Parker’s description of Joe’s face makes him sound somewhat like the phantom of the opera.
Double-dealing Orange County politics forms the background for the story. A rich developer and his psycho son, a county department head on the take, the county’s premier televangelist, an odd assortment of inmates and other crooks plus members of Joe’s unusual family populate the novel. But Joe is the star.
He’s a tough cop. He’s muscular and works out regularly, knows how to handle himself and is a skilled marksman. As a result, this could be a Rambo type story with a hard-ass tough-guy protagonist bent on revenge, but Joe is a complex character and the complications in his life lift this story to surprising and rewarding heights.
I marveled at Parker’s creation and wondered if other readers–or reviewers–recognized the subtle, elusive nuances I sensed in Joe. Bill Sheehan, a Barnes and Noble reviewer, said Joe was an “evolving protagonist with love and loyalty issues.” Some reviewers referred to Joe’s intelligence. He is smart and has an eidetic memory. He recalls everything he sees and hears.
But there’s more to Joe. He’s polite–not smart-alecky–and doesn’t swear. He’s slow and introspective; his scars are not just on his face. One reviewer said Joe was “hesitant.” The voice Parker gave Joe, however, is unique in a way that makes other “unique” voices in fiction sound commonplace.
Silent Joe gets more gritty and compelling as it goes along. Joe learns more about his suspects, his parents and himself. He exchanges barbs with the sadistic jail inmates and also falls in love.
Parker keeps up the pace using staccato sentences and fragments to move the action swiftly in some scenes. He doesn’t neglect metaphors, either. Explaining rush hour traffic he says, “But cars on Orange County freeways at six o’clock move about as fast as cars on showroom floors.”
The novel’s supporting cast–particularly the jail prisoners–from the crazy biker who carried the head of a victim around in a pillowcase tied to his hog for a week to a former assistant DA who planned to go to Tahiti with his family when he got out, fills the story of Joe’s life with fascinating details.
Toward the end of the book, Joe talks to one of his father’s friends, or more appropriately, acquaintances. After the meeting, Joe summarizes his situation and reviews his father’s oft-repeated advice that was possibly Joe’s nascent philosophy:
“The idea struck me that I was inheriting my father’s friends, as well as his enemies. I just wasn’t positive which was which. I wondered if Will was. You only had to be wrong once.
“Love a lot. Trust few.”