So begins the plot of A Thousand Steps, the 27th novel from best-selling writer T. Jefferson Parker. This latest mystery is a stand-alone — like Parker’s Edgar Award–winning novels Silent Joe and California Girl — one that finds the author drawing inspiration from the cultural and artistic upheavals he witnessed firsthand, growing up in Southern California in the 1960s.
Matt sets out to find his missing sister. The investigation seems simple at first: he learns Jazz had spent the night with a musician named Austin Overton. But Austin hasn’t seen her since she left — and last anyone heard, she was talking about these mysterious parties out on Sapphire Cove, thrown at a “house on the cliff, overlooking the bay.” The type of party frequented by people with money, “Hollywood types, too.”
Matt follows up on this lead, and he observes a scene reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut: “Naked people on beds, sofas, chairs, the floor. Some wear masks. Some are frenzied, some slow. Young girls and mostly older men.” Matt’s previous experiences with erotica had been limited to “Playboy magazine, a couple of racy drawings, and an astrological sex-position poster at Mystic Arts World,” so — despite his serious intentions — Matt finds himself aroused by the orgy he witnesses, finding that “this live action here in Sapphire Cove is another level of excitement altogether — far more powerful and immediate. Matt feels incomprehensible currents massing against each other inside, mixing and separating and massing again.”
This is where A Thousand Steps is at its best: when the novel seamlessly intertwines the detective novel and bildungsroman. Coming of age amid the late 1960s, Matt experiences changes in his body, and in his life, that mirror those going on in the country — the sexual desire and spiritual longing that Matt feels, the violence he is forced to engage in during his investigation, are all reflected in the Southern California atmosphere, where free love, antiwar protests, and mystical movements saturate the air. The pleasures of the novel come from seeing the various ways that Matt’s emergence into adulthood helps, hinders, dovetails with, and contradicts his quest to find his sister.
For example: Matt’s family is flat broke, and his checked-out mom never keeps much food around the house, so Matt lives meal-to-meal, never far from starving. His growing body is a calorie furnace, given his youthful metabolism and the hours he spends each day bicycling around Laguna Beach on his paper route, and his constant hunger motivates him to accept any opportunity to earn a few bucks — a little fast food money, some reprieve from the peanut butter burritos he otherwise lives on. These side jobs put his investigation on temporary hold, as he hand-delivers copies of the Tibetan Book of the Dead — Matt often hangs around Mystic Arts World, a bookstore connected with Timothy Leary and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love — or serves as a part-time police informant, or transports prototypes of an innovative new surfboard for a shady millionaire.
Then there is his burgeoning love life. Matt has begun hanging out with a classmate named Laurel, who becomes his first girlfriend and an enthusiastic sidekick in his search. And Sarah, an attractive young heiress who recognizes his sister from pop-up modeling shoots where bikini-clad hippies pose on the shoulders of oily bodybuilders. Sarah and Jazz had also visited the Vortex of Purity, a spiritual community led by the guru Swami Mahajad Om, promising Evolution, Enlightenment, and Ecstasy.
Sex parties, cheesy photo shoots, spiritual subjugation — is all that really his sister’s scene? It doesn’t sound like the Jazz Matt knows, the girl who acts superior to everything and backs up her attitude with intelligence and effortless cool. The investigation forces Matt to confront not only himself and his changing body but also his understanding of his sister. He is often left wondering why every description he hears of her seems to contradict this conception he has in his head:
The Jazz who Matt knows, or thinks he knows, probably wouldn’t have come [to the Vortex of Purity] more than once. She is a seeker, yes, as her interest in the Bible, mysticism, and spirituality proves. An artist, too. But not a joiner. Not a follower. She’s the opposite of that. Jazz the skeptical, the questioning, the unconvinced. She writes songs for herself and her ukulele, not for a band, because, as she once told him, “other people would stink them up.”
Matt clings so dearly to these ideas about his sister in part because he doesn’t fit in with the new culture, either, and while he “wants to side with the young and free, of course […] he’s not sure how. Smoke pot? Wear that lame tie-dye hippie stuff?”
Matt’s outsider status makes him an unbiased observer of the burgeoning subcultures. While Parker makes good use of this — he has no interest in romanticizing this time period — readers may find themselves wishing that Matt would get a little more swept up in the promises of one movement or another, even in an innocent or naïve way. Kem Nunn’s noir classic Tapping the Source provides an important reference point here, as a novel that also features a teenage boy attempting to locate his missing sister amid all the runaways of Southern California. But while Nunn’s protagonist finds himself enticed by the lifestyle of those dangerous and violent surfers he’s meant to investigate, Matt always maintains just enough distance to keep from ever feeling complicit in anyone else’s sins.
Which is a missed opportunity, because A Thousand Steps works best when it moves Matt into the center of some paradox — how can he maintain the search for his sister when the sheer reality of being a teenage boy takes up all his time? How can he decide who is good and evil in this world when every person seems to possess elements of both sides?
Such questions drive the story along, even while the actual mechanics of Matt’s investigation grow a tad repetitive at times. After a brief, panicked phone call midway through the novel confirms that Jazz is still alive and being held somewhere in Laguna Beach against her will, Matt hatches a new plan: he will find his sister by going door-to-door through the entire city and asking to look inside every house. The problem is not that this is a bad plan — bad plans can often make good reading — no, the unforgivable sin is that this is a boring plan. The breathless energy of the novel’s early pages gives way to rote legwork: knock, question, glance around, repeat. The drag of these middle pages only lets up when Matt’s long-absent father comes to town. A cowboy who despises California, Bruce Anthony kicks the investigation back into gear. Scenes of entertaining tension follow Bruce through the novel’s remaining pages, as he openly expresses his disdain for the culture around him — like Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe, from Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye, Bruce walks around late-’60s California like a man from another era.
Parker’s writing style favors direct and straightforward prose — the literary flourishes are infrequent. Fans of genre mysteries will find plenty here to enjoy — as will anyone interested in Laguna Beach of the late ’60s and the sketchy, often predatory subcultures of psychedelic experimentation and spiritual enlightenment.
And while A Thousand Steps may fall short of Nunn’s masterful Tapping the Source — in part because Parker keeps the moral ambiguity located outside of his protagonist, rather than within — Steps does depict, in similarly seductive fashion, the collision of cultures and lifestyles that occurs along that California beachscape, where bikers and surfers, hippies and drug dealers, gurus and sinister millionaires, young runaways and the spiritually derelict all come together in that sunny world of illusions; where peace and love get lip service, but a dark undercurrent of violence lurks behind every false word.
Jason Namey is a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. His short fiction has appeared in Post Road, Puerto del Sol, Juked, Hobart, Moon City Review, and elsewhere.