The town of Fallbrook is tucked into the fertile rolling hills north of San Diego, where temperate climate and rich soil combine to form the perfect growing medium for the region's avocado, citrus and commercial nursery industries. Incongruously, the roar of Army artillery practice from nearby Camp Pendleton routinely punctuates the peacefulness of this otherwise pastoral setting.
Such unlikely contrasts appeal to T. Jefferson Parker, the town's resident author, whose 14 thrillers have so rarely left the state that one wonders if they've been ordered not to by some suspicious investigating officer. The truth is, Jeff Parker (the "T" is silent) is one native Angeleno who finds all the story ideas he can handle in his own hometown.
Witness his latest thriller, Storm Runners, at once a revenge plot, redemption tale and love story that features the very sort of outrageous contrasts that tempt and tease readers before ultimately reeling them in.
Here's the back story: Matt Stromsoe and Mike Tavarez are buddies at Santa Ana High, the former a drum major, the latter a marching band member. They part ways at graduation—Stromsoe becomes a San Diego sheriff's deputy, Tavarez heads east to Harvard, then becomes a chieftain in the Mexican mafia. When Stromsoe directs a manhunt that captures Tavarez but accidentally kills his girlfriend, the kingpin retaliates with a car bomb meant for Matt that instead kills his wife and son. Severely disabled in the blast, Matt descends into self-pity and drink.
Two years later, a buddy pulls Matt back from the brink and offers him a job with his private security firm. Matt's first assignment: protect Frankie Hatfield, a television meteorologist who is being stalked by a crazed fan. The closer Matt grows to Frankie, the more he suspects that her off-hours tinkering with a formula her eccentric ancestor Charles Hatfield used to make rain may be putting her life in danger.
Farfetched? Actually, Storm Runners is based on true events. As they say: only in California.
"Charles Hatfield is a real guy. Isn't that amazing?" Parker says. "I've known about him for a while. The next village over, Bonsall, is where Hatfield had his secret lab. It's real easy for me to sit here from a few miles away and go, wow, what if it's still there, buried down in some old oak trees and grown over with wild cucumber?"
Could the garage scientist actually make it rain?
"Yeah! He was great at it!" Parker says. " The story in the book where he floods San Diego and then has to flee town because they want to hang him instead of pay him, that's a true story right out of the history books. Of course, for every stupendous rainmaking success that Charles had, he would have a resounding failure also, so the rational scientific community never considered him as anything more than fraudulently lucky. But if you look at his successes, they really were spectacular."
OK, perhaps we'll accept a beautiful modern-day rainmaker. But a Harvard-educated drug lord?
"The Harvard guy is real, too," Parker chuckles. "Nobody would believe that; I wouldn't even write that character if, in fact, there hadn't been a guy doing that right around the corner from where I grew up. He went to Harvard and robbed liquor stores on weekends. Sometimes when you get a little nugget of history or fact underneath you, you feel emboldened to exaggerate it or make it bigger."
Parker often sprinkles deft, defining touches throughout his breakneck tales that keep the characters grounded. In Storm Runners, it's the Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui), one of which makes a lovely touchdown on a dead man's shoe.
"Those are a real phenomenon here, and they're spectacular and beautiful. It just seemed like a natural thing for the story because I wanted to portray Stromsoe's re-entry into the world as a return to Eden, almost an idyllic place where it's fragrant and peaceful. It's a real starting-over story, and putting in butterflies just seemed a nice touch."
Growing up in suburban Tustin, Parker always had a taste for truths that were stranger than fiction, and nurtured it, after graduating in English from the University of California-Irvine, by signing on as a newspaper reporter in Orange County.
" I was a boyhood admirer of the Guinness Book of World Records, those weird things like the bearded woman and the fattest man," he admits. "I love those obscure facts that are so outlandish you really can't believe them, but you have to."
After immersing himself in classic L.A. noir fiction, from Raymond Chandler to James Ellroy, Parker set out to reinvent the genre from the sunny, suburban perspective of the O.C. The result was his 1985 debut hit, Laguna Heat.
" I very purposefully tried to avoid all things that had gone before," he says. "It wasn't a dark, moody, drinking L.A. noir story at all; it was set in Laguna Beach, for crying out loud, with eucalyptus trees and paintings and artists and beautiful waves. Even at that age, I knew you couldn't put the gumshoe in the phone booth; it just doesn't work anymore."
Along with a handful of West Coast contemporaries, including Don Winslow and Kem Nunn, Parker continues to refine and redefine what L.A. crime fiction can be.
"I like and respect the mystery genre very much, but I think sometimes you can find yourself handcuffed by convention a little bit if you don't try to stretch those boundaries, and sometimes break them," he says.
"My last book, The Fallen, is completely noir-free; it's bright and optimistic and the main character has not an ounce of darkness in him. And I think that's a legitimate way to look at the world and a legitimate way to write a novel. If at some point during the writing of the book it becomes clear to me that I'm going to have to ignore certain conventions, I'm going to do it, because the book is more important than the genre."
Jay MacDonald writes from Austin, Texas.