T. Jefferson Parker is the critically acclaimed author of some of the best crime novels out there. His first, Laguna Heat, written on evenings and weekends while he worked as a journalist, was published to rave reviews and made into an HBO movie starring Harry Hamlin, Jason Robards and Rip Torn. The paperback made The New York Times Bestseller list in 1986.
Parker’s following novels—all dealing with crime, life and death in sunny Southern California—were hugely successful, and appeared on many bestseller lists. Silent Joe and California Girl both won the Edgar Award. His recent novels feature protagonist Charlie Hood, a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputy “on loan” to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms task force working the illegal gun trade along the U.S. Mexico border. Parker has a new novel out, The Famous and the Dead, and it sounds like another great one.
Jeff met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his new release and his protagonists.
Tell us about The Famous and the Dead.
The Famous and the Dead is the final volume in my six-part “Border Sextet.” The protagonist in all of them is Charlie Hood, young and single, employed by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department but attached to an ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) task force. So what he does day-to-day is the work the border between the US and Mexico, trying to stop the illegal flow of weapons heading south. Working this “iron river” (iron=guns; river=flow) brings Charlie and his task force brethren into the world of gun runners, corrupt lawmen on both sides of the border, and, of course, powerful and ruthless drug cartels. Several other characters accompany Charlie through the series. One is Bradley Jones, the son of Charlie’s one-time lover, who was both a history teacher and an armed robber. He works for the LASD just as Charlie does, but his morals and ethics are, well, in question and Charlie is hip to Bradley’s chicanery. Another is diminutive Mike Finnegan, who claims to be mid-level devil but seems more of an insane genius bent toward mayhem. The Famous and the Dead settles the scores between these three characters in a rather flamboyant way.
How important is it to you to show a point of view antagonistic to your protagonist in your novels?
Oh, a good question. The striving between protagonist and antagonist is really what makes a thriller, in my opinion. Maybe rivalry is a better word. Or, if you want to balloon up those words a little more, and say “good versus evil,” then you have a fair idea of what the Charlie Hood series, and The Famous and the Dead are all about. Maybe “good versus evil” is an oversimplified way to view the world, but it also might be just about correct. We certainly, most of us, carry the seeds of both inside, and the job of a storyteller is to give to those seeds bodies and faces and agency, and let them go forth upon the stage and slug it out. Of course, there are many fine novels throughout history that don’t boil down the drama to the simplicities of good and evil. But I do think that, within what one expects from thrillers such as the Charlie Hood books, this kind of protagonist/antagonist distillation and amplification is a good thing. One of the things I’m most happy with in The Famous and the Dead are the faces/bodies/agency I’ve assigned to good and to evil and to the many things in between.
Do you think the best detectives have strong criminal shadows?
It seems that fiction tells us so. I interviewed Michael Mann decades ago and he told me about growing up in Chicago, and how in his neighborhood, the bad guys and the good guys were mixed all together, using the same establishments, frequenting the same haunts. His implication was, I think, that given the same nurture, the crooks and cops were not really that different, fundamentally. It was just a career choice. Certainly Thomas Harris would have us believe that Will Graham understands Francis Dolarhyde because of some common wiring. Since Harris, you see that kind of assumption in thousands of thrillers, TV shows and movies. I’m not so sure that connection bears up in real life, though. The cops I know – I mean law enforcers in general and as a group – have a much different mindset than the crooks. There’s a basic belief in the rule of law that doesn’t apply across the line. They’re comfortable within the rules, mostly. There’s also a selflessness in law enforcement people, in my experience, that precludes the sociopathic commitment to one’s own pleasures and advancements. So, I think the idea that cops and crooks are more alike than we might think is a wonderful tactic for storytelling but is it really true? I doubt it.
Do you think the power of the Mexican drug cartels triggers a deep fear in the American psyche and how realistic is that fear?
Oh wow, fear of cartels is all around us, writ large. You see it everywhere from my Charlie Hood series to “Breaking Bad” to “Sixty Minutes.” The fear is real and justified, in my opinion, though certainly exaggerated. Fear makes terrific stories for newspapers and other media, and it informs and propels dozens of works of fiction every year. Most people enjoy fear, so long as it’s enjoyed at a distance from the actual stressor. So we mystery-thriller-action creators can put the drug cartels to good use. If you really look at the nuts and bolts of it, there is a lot of drug cartel influence in the U.S., as in other parts of the world. The generous tides of drugs going north into the U.S., and the dollars going south are by now well known. What appeals to me most about Mexico as a writer isn’t always the fear of violence “coming north.” What’s more interesting is the actual battleground between cartels and government (and regular citizens) south of the border, in Mexico itself. There are towns overrun by narcotrafficantes. There are towns abandoned, completely shut down. There are towns where you live in fear and keep your children home from school. There are states where you simply – as a citizen of any country – do not want to go. There have been some 70,000 drug-related murders in Mexico in the last seven years! Not to mention kidnappings and disappearances. So there’s a general state of lawlessness in some parts of this wonderful country, and that is where I’ve set a large part of my border series. That’s the nub of it – lawlessness. A place where the laws of man no longer apply. There’s something Conradian about it. Mexico as the Congo. Up river. And all of that, taking place in broad daylight and living color, adjacent to one of the wealthiest countries on Earth.
Why is Orange County such a useful location for your fictions?
I’m easily inspired by geography. When I first moved from my native Tustin to Laguna Beach (all of about eight miles away!) I was a young newspaper reporter searching for a novel to write. And I was quickly smitten by Laguna – the Pacific, of course, and the hills and the languorous village and the variety of people. I fell in love with it. And what was to become “Laguna Heat” suggested itself through those things, and I rode my enchantment straight into the book. It’s not just Orange County, though. Similarly, when I moved to Fallbrook twenty years later, I fell for the groves of citrus and avocado, the wonderful fragrance of the place, the widely varied peoples. All of those things inspired me. There’s a lot of Fallbrook in “Storm Runners,” and it’s cropping up in one of the stories I’m working on now. So…geography and location are really important to me. They get my fires burning.
To what extent are the conflicts embodied in your heroes and villains elemental?
I think the inner conflicts in people arise fairly early in life and help guide us through the world, for better or worse. And that’s true of good characters, also, they seem to be governed by forces that are, to use your good word, elemental. Things get interesting, for people as well as fictional characters, when those conflicts collide with other people and characters who don’t share them, or don’t see them, or are dead-set against such sets of mind. Thus the idea that “character is destiny.” I’d say also, that fictional characters are not as complex as real humans. Writers need to sharpen and clarify character – make it definite – whereas real people are less organized, messier, more prone to surprising us. A good character is a good approximation of life.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Well, people can read however they choose. Free will and free markets and all that. Personally, I think e-readers are a genuine pain. They’re digital and charmless. I borrowed one once and thought it had about as much soul as a TV dinner. I’d much rather have a book because I like books. I only buy books I think I’ll read and get something out of, and this accomplished, I want to have them right there on the shelf, original dust jackets in place, auras gently emanating, for the rest of my natural life. I could bequeath an e-reader to my sons – yes, you each get half the contents! – but really, I think the books themselves are a finer thing.
Is there a particular event that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
The one that stands out is a rainy winter day my sophomore year of high school. I had taken a “Mythology and Folklore” class at Tustin High School, taught by the attractive young Ms. Page. I took it only for the alleged “easy-A.” It was a bonehead English class, really, but Ms. Page was passionate about the subject. We misbehaved week after week. Mostly boys. One day she announced that she would not teach us that day because we were rude and incapable of learning. Yuk yuk we answered. And she ordered us to form a single-file line at her desk, upon which she had placed a large cardboard box filled with paperback novels from her garage. She ordered us to pass by the box one student at a time, and close our eyes, and choose a book at random from the box, and take it back to our respective desks and read in absolute silence for the period or she’d send us to Mr. Andrews – the man with the paddle. I closed my eyes and chose “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, and I read it over the next week and it changed my life. When I was done, I wanted to be a writer and I muttered something to myself about someday writing a book that would give my readers one one-thousandth of the pleasure I got from that novel. I’m still trying to do that.
What are you working on at the moment?
Nothing! I’m in the dreaming-it-up phase of a novel, where I’m looking for the kernel of a story interesting enough to see me through the year it will take to write it. One of the first things you learn as a book writer – as you know – is that you better make sure your story is one that you can spend some time with. That means characters, setting, story, the whole package. I’ve always proceeded on the idea that if such an idea is interesting to me, it will certainly be interesting to readers. Don’t know how true that really is, but it sounds good! Actually, I’m finishing up two short stories, also.
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger man?
Well, I think I’d remind myself: do the things you love and don’t get distracted by the things you don’t. It sounds so simple-minded, though! More clearly: let your passions run full throttle. Do things now. And keep the bar as high as you can keep it. And finally: believe. Belief is the key that will finally get you in. Now you can see why I don’t write self-help books! Because I sound like Ward Cleaver at happy hour or something!
Thank you Jeff for a great and perceptive interview.
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