Academics say California mysteries mirror society

Dec. 10, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

SACRAMENTO - Academics gathering at a one-day conference hosted by the Center for California Studies last week said the mystery novel is a mirror of society. To this a group of local mystery writers replied: Nuts.

John Lescroart, Karen Kijewski and Bill Wood insisted they sit down at their computers with only one aim - to write a good story. They write about crime, the legal system, and the lives of interesting, troubled people in Sacramento and San Francisco. But over the course of time these stories will become societal mirrors whether the writers intend for that to happen or not.

Take a look at the state's fiction, suggests Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, for a complete portrait of 20th Century California and an insight into politics. Early California mysteries were written in a style invented right here, featuring the hard-boiled detective. Dashiell Hammett described San Francisco life in the 1920s while Raymond Chandler did the same for Los Angeles in the 1930s and Ross Macdonald in Santa Barbara continued writing about social, generational and economic conflict in California until his death in the early '80s.

Lescroart, Kijewski and Wood could do worse than share an association with those observers of the human condition.

Writer T. Jefferson Parker, 41 ("Laguna Heat,'' "Little Saigon," "Pacific Beat," "Summer of Fear"), didn't at all mind the suggestion that his books mirror society in some compelling way. "Little Saigon," for instance, is very nearly a sociological study of the Southeast Asian immigrant community that settled in Orange County after 1975.

"I learned more about (Orange County) from 'Little Saigon' than reading any newspaper or magazine," said Walters.

Mystery writers over the years have tended to deflate the hype that surrounds The Golden State. Southern California in the early years was a commodity oversold by speculators to such an extent that today, a century later, the population is exploding, crime is rampant, the air is not fit to breathe and the natural world is being destroyed. A reflection of this disillusionment is the essence of noir writing, says Parker, a former journalist. Still, Parker says he wouldn't live anywhere else.

"My blood, my roots are here. I love it. You'll find disillusionment in my books tempered by hope," he said.

California is credited with offering writers not only a wonderful, diverse geographical place in which to locate characters and crimes, but a short, rich history of corruption, violence and greed.

"Corruption needs two things," says Professor John Walton of UC Davis, "scoundrels and opportunity. California may offer more of the latter." Walton is the author of "Western Times and Water Wars," a book of non-fiction that describes the Owens Valley water grab later fictionalized and turned into the movie "Chinatown."

Jules Tygiel of the San Francisco State University history department described what he calls the true life forerunner of the California mystery novel, the Julian petroleum scandal in 1920s Los Angeles. His book is "The Great Los Angeles Swindle," which describes "historical characters much more vivid than fiction."

Over time, the mystery genre has expanded with the state's population to include women, gays and minorities. California writers like James Ellroy ("The Big Nowhere"), Walter Mosley ("Black Betty") and Michael Nava ("Hidden Law") have created works featuring a petty thief turned lawman, a black private investigator and a gay Chicano attorney.

Two speakers at the conference credited the Bay Area's Marcia Muller for creating one of the earliest female detective series written by a female. Sharon McCone, Muller's protagonist, first appeared in 1977 in "Edwin of the Iron Shoes" although she was created three years earlier. Publishers had trouble accepting McCone initially. Since then she as appeared in 20 Muller novels and the field has exploded with female investigators. Santa Barbara's Sue Grafton leads the way with her fiesty character, Kinsey Millhone.

At the end of the conference, Sacramento mystery writer Kijewski summed up her reaction to the academic dissection of her genre.

"I am totally stunned by the complexity of what we do," she said. "I thought we were just telling stories with good characters."

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