California Girl and The Fallen

T. Jefferson Parker
California Girl (Harper Collins, 2006)
and The Fallen (William Morrow, 2006)

The author is a constant delight. Jack Batten reviews The Fallen (below) — a sheer delight.

Once you fall upon T. Jefferson Parker you begin a smorgasboard of limitless tastes. He has written 13 books — all of them rivetting, all with different characters.

One of Parker’s works is California Girl (Harper Torch paperback 2004):

This book is so good it’s scary. A picture of California in the 60s. Subtle, subtle, The John Birchers, the early Dick Nixon, Timothy Leary, Charlie Manson, all alive and bearing every day hues. Nixon, just a solicitous congressman, the Birchers pursuing a single buggaboo of communism. Only the FBI, all black, all scarey with Lyndon Johnson on the prowl digging dirt on his opponents.

So well written, I feel I’ve been there.

Sensory Overload in Tough San Diego

Whodunit | T. Jefferson Parker’s latest conspicuous sufferer can detect when people are telling lies — woe to him, says Jack Batten.

Several years ago, the English artist David Hockney was listening to Ravel, and in the music, he saw a tree. He painted the tree. Or rather, as Hockney explained, the tree painted itself. Admirers of Hockney said the tree was unlike anything he had ever painted before.

What allowed Hockney to see the tree in Ravel was a neurological condition called synesthesia. For people with the condition, real information from one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense, Synesthesia, which is rare and involuntary, has been around for a long time, diagnosed as far back as the early 19th century. Balzac once said he’d kill to have synesthesia.

Robbie Brownlaw thinks it’s a mixed blessing. Brownlaw, a 29-year-old San Diego homicide detective, is the narrator of T. Jefferson Parker’s smart and thrilling new crime novel, The Fallen. Brownlaw got his synesthesia the hard way. A crazed man shoved him out a window on the sixth floor of a burning hotel. Thanks to the awning on the hotel’s ground floor, Brownlaw’s fall was slowed before his head smacked the pavement. He broke no body parts, but from that day on, he saw coloured shapes coming out of people’s mouths when they spoke to him.

Doctors told him he had synesthesia. For Brownlaw, blue triangles floated from a happy speaker. Aggression showed in small black ovals. Envy came in trapezoids that were coloured — no surprise there — green. Red squares indicated the person was lying. Different shades and shapes covered the whole range of emotions. One limitation was that Brownlaw’s synesthesia didn’t work if the other person was talking to him over the phone.

In The Fallen, Parker doesn’t overplay Brownlaw’s synesthesia. Brownlaw has kept the condition to himself, telling no one except his wife Gina, whom he’s mad about. He recognizes that his synesthesia is a useful forensic tool in questioning witnesses and suspects; the instant that red squares pour out of someone’s mouth, Brownlaw knows he’s got a lying fool on his hands.

While innumerable liars make their appearances in the murder case that Brownlaw and his partner are working, the cops solve it for the most part with good old standard police investigating. The victim in the killing is a former cop who switched to San Diego’s Ethics Authority Enforcement Unit. His new job was to prevent politicians and businessmen from helping themselves to the City’s money. Since San Diego is apparently more corrupt than most American towns, the lineup of citizens, who might have bumped off the ethics cop stretches for blocks.

Parker has imagination to burn and knows how to write crisp and elegant sentences that keep the pages turning. The story of the sleuthing by Brownlaw and the partner, a likeable woman of unbounded cynicism, never falters in interest even though Brownlaw’s condition, the fascinating synethesia, takes a crowd-pleasing turn in virtually every chapter.

Compared to Parker’s earlier novels — he’s up to 13 books now — The Fallen is a slim volume. Parker favours epics and sagas, featuring a different cast of Southern California characters in each novel. California Girl (2004) tells the story from 1954 onward of three Orange County brothers — cop, journalist and preacher — whose lives are changed, not necessarily for the better, by the murder in 1968 of an alluring young woman. The solving of the murder is something the brothers get wrong, though they aren’t wised up to the blunder until something excruciating develops decades later.

The broad canvases that Parker chooses never seem to make him nervous. In another sprawling and confident novel, Cold Pursuit (2003), he tells the story of a blood feud between two San Diego families, one rich and the other not, the first Portuguese and the second Irish.

The inter-family action, which reaches back three generations, gets tricky in present time. First, someone bashes to death the octogenarian chief of the wealthy bunch. Then it happens that the homicide detective assigned to the case belongs to the family without the dough. Just to complicate the relationships, the homicide dick once had a Romeo and Juliet romance with the dead old guy’s granddaughter. And that’s not all; the deceased and the people he dealt with are among those legions of San Diego businessmen and politicians who go around with their hands out. This makes for enough suspects to constitute a crowd.

Tom McMichael, the Irish police detective, has a ferocious conscience and suffers mightily in its name. In romance, he leads with his heart every time and that gets him in trouble when he falls for a woman who is a suspect in the bashing of the octogenarian. McMichael is given to embarrassment, which is an odd tendency in a cop, and he broods at length over almost everything which is not so strange in an Irishman. Still, he isn’t without a sense of humour, and in his many contrary qualities, he’s typical of the complex central characters that populate the Parker books.

Robbie Brownlaw of The Fallen is one more conspicuous sufferer, something to which his synesthesia adds a painful dimension. From the instant Brownlaw starts talking about his marriage in chapter one, all of us readers just know that his wife Gina can’t possibly love him with anything like the intensity he brings to the union. With this early piece of realization, we hold our breath waiting for the agony that seems bound to come when Brownlaw spots the red squares tumbling from Gina’s lovely mouth.

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