The Edgar Awards Revisited: California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker (Best Novel, 2005)
Ellison Cooper takes us to 1960s Orange County for a look back at California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker—the 2005 Edgar Award winner for Best Novel.
The 2005 Edgar Award winner for best novel, California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker, is part police procedural and part family saga focused on the lives of the three Becker brothers caught up in a tangled web of love, betrayal, and murder. I was excited to review this novel because Parker’s other Edgar Award winner, Silent Joe, is one of my favorites. While I found Parker’s writing to be evocative, even lyrical at times, I will admit that it took me a while to get into California Girl. Despite the slow beginning, once I found myself invested in the characters, I enjoyed the novel’s character-driven mystery punctuated by sharp slashes of imagery and brief moments of propulsive action.
Set among the conservatism, burgeoning drug culture, and endless sunshine of 1960s Orange County, California Girl centers on the death of troubled beauty queen Janelle Vonn. The stereotypical “pretty dead girl,” Janelle has a long history with the Becker brothers—police detective Nick, local reporter Andy, and preacher David—each connected to her in their own way.
As a man of God, David takes Janelle in when she flees her abusive family. While building a new congregation (at his awesome drive-in church which I discovered was a real phenomenon!) and hiding his own secrets, David helps Janelle kick a drug habit and find a safe place to stay. When Janelle is found decapitated in an abandoned warehouse, Nick is called in to investigate the murder. Inexperienced as a lead detective, he fumbles his way through the case while also navigating his strained relationship with his wife. Andy, a young and hungry reporter, also becomes involved in the investigation, seeking a good story while trying to figure out what it is he really wants in life.
As they orbit the murder of Janelle, the three bothers are all trying their best to muddle through the complexities of life and Parker does an admirable job of creating characters with genuine depth.
T. Jefferson Parker also did a wonderful job evoking 1960s Orange County. The disappearing orange groves and spreading suburbs of the region were painted with beautiful imagery. The unfolding nightmare of Vietnam and the growing Cold War, coupled with cameos from Timothy Leary, Charles Manson, and Richard Nixon, created a clear picture of the social upheavals of the time, and I really enjoyed watching the Becker brothers each struggle with these sweeping social changes in their own way.
My only real criticism of California Girl is the titular girl. Though Janelle Vonn is in many ways the central figure of the book, she basically acts as nothing more than motivation to the men around her. Indeed, almost every man in the book is drawn to her because of her characterless “beauty and charm.” Ultimately, her horrific murder felt like nothing more than the catalyst for the Becker brothers’ journey of self-discovery.
Despite that, if you are looking for a slow-burn, character-driven mystery with a great historical setting, California Girl is hard to beat.
Notes from the 2005 Edgar Awards:
- The other nominees for Best Novel were By a Spider’s Thread by Laura Lippman, Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming, Evan’s Gate by Rhys Bowen, and Remembering Sarah by Chris Mooney.
- Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement won Best Motion Picture.
- Marcia Muller hosted the awards as The Grand Master.
- Two Special Edgars were awarded: the first to David Chase, writer/producer of The Sopranos and other television shows, and the second to Tom Fontana, writer/producer of Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz, and The Jury.
- The Mary Higgins Clark Award was given to Grave Endings by Rochelle Krich.
- Country of Origin by Don Lee won Best First Novel, ousting Bahamarama by Bob Morris, Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan, Little Girl Lost by Richard Aleas, Tonight I Said Goodbye by Michael Koryta, and Relative Danger by Charles Benoit.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as author Hank Phillippi Ryan stops by to review Citizin Vince by Jess Walter, the 2006 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.