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by T. Jefferson Parker
William Morrow, September 2004
384 pages
ISBN: 0060562366

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

T Jefferson Parker reconstructed the turmoil of the Vietnam era in Orange County, California in his last book, RED LIGHT. CALIFORNIA GIRL revisits that era, but without the constraints of his series character, Merci Rayborn. By shedding the series format he's given himself a broader landscape to explore, and the result is a piercing piece of storytelling.

We always knew Parker could write. He won the Edgar in 2002, after all. But here he's finally taken the risks that mark him as a truly great talent.

Janelle Vonn grew up in Tustin, California not far from the Becker brothers. The Vonn brothers and the Beckers had a rumble once over a baseball cap that one of the Beckers tossed over a fence to a ferocious German Shepherd. After that, the families had an intermittent and strained relationship.

The kids have grown up now. Janelle was named Miss Tustin, and each of the Becker boys has become a professional: David's a preacher, Nick's a homicide detective, and Andy is a reporter for the local paper.

Nick's first case as a lead detective is a murder at an abandoned orange packing facility. When he arrives on the scene, he discovers that the victim of this particularly gruesome crime is Janelle Vonn.

Each brother has his personal relationship with Janelle. Andy, the reporter, feels guilty because Janelle asked him to call her before she died and, somehow frightened by her beauty, he didn't. David was her minister and helped her overcome her addiction to drugs. Nick remembers her as a little girl with a guitar and cowboy boots. Each of the brothers does what he can to see that Janelle's killer is brought to justice.

As with Parker's other books, the story is one of psychological and moral complexity. Each of the brothers is faced with a moral dilemma, and each meets it in his own way. Parker brings the California of 1968 to life so vividly that you can smell the pot and taste the fear inspired by FBI extortion. This isn't exactly a page-turner, but the pages fly by as the reader is drawn into this completely realized world.

In a larger sense, this is a story about the beauty and promise of California, which Parker sees squandered in the hopeless naiveté of flower children, the ruthlessness of drug traffickers, and the cynical manipulations of the FBI and right wing politicians. In Parker's California, each faction has played a role in draining the state of its original potential, until all that remains is a land barren of orange groves, paved over and stripped of everything but tract homes, shopping malls and cheap commercial exploitation. It's a grim view, but as someone who's lived the California dream for 30 years, I can't help but see the truth at the core of Parker's argument.

If you're looking for a satisfying read, one that will stay with you after you've finished it, go out and buy this book now. If you're anything like me, you'll be thinking about it for a long time.

Reviewed by Carroll Johnson, July 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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