Lynette Brasfield , novelist, ghostwriter, writer

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Masters of Suspense

What’s Our Secret?

Orange County, California, is home to numerous best-selling mystery novelists—and we wondered what made the place so attractive to them…

With its blonde beaches, cobalt skies, and terracotta suburban homes abutting Little League fields and wilderness parks, the OC is, let’s say, not exactly noir—not the kind of backdrop most people associate with murder and mayhem. We’re the anti-Gotham, the un-L.A. Yet our beautiful and balmy county is home to some of the country’s most successful mystery writers, and provides the evocative and vivid setting for many thrillers.

What makes the place such a rich source of killer fiction?

Setting

Well, geographically speaking, we have an expansive national forest in which to abandon bodies, the Pacific Ocean in which to dump them, and a creeping fog—our marine layer—in which to sneak up on victims. Fog is practically a full-time character in several of best-selling author T. Jefferson Parker’s many terrific mysteries: for example, in a wonderfully Chandleresque sentence in Pacific Beat, readers learn that on the night of the murder in question, “the fog was thick and the night was slow.” We also read of “fog-clenched afternoons” and a sunrise “throttled” by fog.

That’s one of the secrets, then, for any would-be writer: take the time to absorb the details of your environment, and use them to enhance the mood and the action. Sometimes contrasting the sunny environment with the horror of murder can be just as effective as placing a dead body (fictionally speaking) among garbage-strewn alleyways.

Parker’s brilliance with language and skill in narrating action brings the OC alive in numerous of his Edgar Award-winning novels, including Summer of Fear, Laguna Heat, Little Saigon, and one of his personal favorites, California Girl. In his books, characters race along the dim-lit streets of Costa Mesa and are stabbed in packing sheds, but they also confront murderers among citrus-smelling orange groves and encounter grisly scenes and sticky blood aboard luxury yachts.

“There’s just so much in Orange County that’s interesting and beautiful and infuriating,” says Parker. “The hills in Laguna, the refugees in Little Saigon, the waves at 15th Street in Newport, the gangs in Santa Ana. I grew up, went to school, buried a wife, married again, started a family and wrote eight novels here. It’s in me. As one of my characters says, There was still in all of this the power to move him.” (Parker’s first wife died of cancer many years ago while the couple was living in Laguna Beach.)

In Dean Koontz’s latest novel, The Husband—shortly before a man is randomly shot and a thrilling chase to find a killer ensues—we find this sentence: Golden: the sun and the dog, the air and the promise of the day, the beautiful houses behind deep lawns. Koontz contrasts the gorgeousness of the OC landscape with presence of evil, adding shock value, a particularly effective technique in a book that brims with sensory details—the smells of eucalyptus and jasmine and moss; the feel of waist-high manzanita against the body; the sound of the wind thrashing Queen palms; and the sight of red and purple impatiens and bougainvillea.

Characters

And then there are the people of Orange County. As Parker says, “The County has a long history as a place for entrepreneurs, “visionaries,” and hustlers. There’s a nexus between government and business which can lead to corruption.”

He tells of an article published in the Orange County Register which attempted to match characters in his book, Silent Joe, to real people. “The reporter guessed that a certain supervisor was the model for a nefarious character—in fact the character was an amalgam of several people.”

Barbara Seranella, national best-selling author of the Munch Mancini crime novels, says that in her upcoming 2007 book Deadman’s Switch, her characters move around Tustin, Laguna, Costa Mesa, Anaheim, Brea, and Irvine after a suspicious train derailment occurs. To ensure a sense of authenticity, she visits her settings, for example spending time at the Coaster railyard learning how the train system worked, and observing people at their jobs.
“In No Human Involved, my first book, I needed to describe an old-style bare-bones boxing ring,” she says. “I found one in Santa Ana, full of all the characters and anecdotes I needed to inspire me. One guy was doing step-ups on a plastic crate while wearing a big plastic garbage bag, figuring that would get his weight down. Another was dressed in a seventies suit with a cigarette burn hole in one of his big collar flaps. All the inspiration was right there. All I had to do for my book was move the boxing ring to Venice Beach.”

This attention to detail is essential. Credibility is vital in all fiction, and accuracy is particularly important for the kind of mystery known as a police procedural—otherwise readers might not believe that the events in the story could indeed have occurred. Good writers know the importance of not inadvertently kicking readers out of the “fictional dream,” as John Gardner phrased it, and that means avoiding anachronisms and other errors.

So we have fog. We have history. We have interesting characters. We have authors dedicated to authenticity.

And we have traffic.

Storied Streets

Former OC resident Theresa Schwegel—whose hard-boiled crime novel, Officer Down, won the 2006 Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best First Novel—says that the 55 Freeway offers her “plenty of alone-time to think through ideas and come up with more stories than, let’s say, the Sears Tower...”

But her real secret, she adds, is her local police department, which allows her to ride along and experience first-hand what she calls the ugly action after dark.

“For my second book, Probable Cause, which will come out this month, I spent a lot of time in police classes and cars and even attended covert meetings in parking structures,” Schwegel says.

And that’s another mark of good writers—they do their research first-hand.

Ultimately, it seems there’s just something about the overall ambience of Orange County that inspires mystery authors. Taylor Smith, a top-selling author of eight novels of suspense that are published in some 30 countries—and a Canadian who enjoyed a busy career in politics and international relations before moving here and becoming a novelist—perhaps puts it most succinctly: “I felt an irresistible urge to lift the gorgeous tapestry of life here and see what kind of darkness might be lurking beneath,” she comments.

Smith’s new book, Slim to None, kicks off a new series and features gun-for-hire Hannah Nicks, who moves between L.A. and Turtle Rock, where Nicks’s fictional family lives.

A Perfect Match

Finally, the authors offer kudos to OC residents and their interest in good books.

“So many people here are highly educated and well-traveled—just the kind of readers to fully appreciate complexity of plot and character and the intellectual satisfaction that a mystery or novel of suspense offers,” Smith says.

Jeff Parker agrees. “I’ve always been treated well by OC readers. They’re sophisticated, smart, and discriminating.”

And maybe that’s our secret, the reason we’re such a magnet for mysteries. Quite simply, we have a wealth of writing talent, plus receptive readers. Puzzle solved.

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