Laguna Heat by T. Jefferson Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"For a brief moment Shephard felt that rare emotion, the opposite of déjà vu: not that he had been there before but that he would never be there again."
Laguna Heat (1985) is the debut novel by the three-time Edgar winner T. Jefferson Parker. It does not quite rank with Silent Joe or California Girl, two outstanding works, which - although technically a mystery and a procedural - clearly transcend their genre and belong to "real" literature, but it still is a solid, extremely readable crime novel.
Detective Tom Shephard is the sole member of Laguna Beach Homicide Division transferred there after his "trouble" in Los Angeles where he spent 12 years on the force. In contrast to LA Laguna Beach has had little need for homicide detectives. This picturesque wealthy little seaside town in Orange County and a Mecca for artists boasts little crime, perhaps one murder a year. But the statistics are to be spoiled now: Shephard is on a crime scene where a badly burned body of a well-known resident has been found. Before death the victim was tortured, then had his brains bashed out with a rock, and then was set on fire. Shephard's investigation will widen and will eventually touch events from over thirty years ago.
Shephard is still in psychotherapy after an "officer-involved shooting," a deplorable, vile euphemism for a police officer killing a person. The incident, quite relevant for today's readers particularly because the detective's victim had been a black teenager, has resulted in Shephard's deep trauma, rather plausibly portrayed in the novel. A bit less plausible are the detective's personal connections with the event of the past. His father had been a police officer before becoming a television preacher and the relationship between the two Shephards constitutes the most important motif in the substantial non-police-procedural layer of the novel.
The complex plot is extremely interesting and well paced. The portrayal of Pacific coast locations, my home for the last 34 years, is first class and the characters, at least in some scenes, resemble real people. Most of the book is well written: I like the long passage where Shephard ruminates on his life while in the background his father drones his empty and meaningless "spiritual" phrases on TV. Alas, Mr. Parker decided to include a truly cringeworthy sex scene. There is nothing more obscene than a badly written depiction of a sex act, so I will refrain from quoting the nauseating or giggle inducing complete sentences, but allow me just a few atrocious phrases: "mingled, locked, released," "slick abundance," "spilling in a rush," "he churned harder," and on and on. I am happy that I do not remember any such pearls of prose in the author's later works.
If we forget the debuting author's utter failure in the sex scene, Laguna Heat is a good psychological procedural and a very readable thriller.
Three and a half stars.
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