After almost three decades of writing procedurals, starting with 1985’s Laguna Heat, Parker took a detour with 2014’s Full Measure, a work of literary fiction with strong Old Testament themes. Like Full Measure, his recently published Crazy Blood starts with a crime but revisits familiar Parker themes — nature versus nurture, intergenerational obsession, the power of geography — themes that Parker has been interested in all along, but that drive his new novel, even in the absence of a mystery.
Crazy Blood might be the first “ski noir” novel, comparable to the surf noir pioneered in Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source. Both juxtapose activities and locales that appear wholesome — surfing competitions in the ocean and ski racing in the mountains — with the darkest corners of the human heart. None of the characters in Crazy Blood reach the end or the race — literal or metaphorical — without paying a heavy price.
I met with Parker at his home in Fallbrook, California. We sat on a couch in his family room and talked about character, crime, and crazy on Mammoth Mountain. From time to time, Parker’s parakeets joined the conversation.
NANCIE CLARE: Do you start with the crime or the criminal, the character or the circumstances?
JEFFERSON PARKER: [As a writer] I’m a protagonist-antagonist man. I like to get a feel for my main character. Have to. And then an equally good grip on that character’s antagonist or antagonists. That tension forms the core of my books. The crime comes up through that — what do these guys want? What’s the basic setup? You go through scenarios until one hits you. For example, “I want to write about a kidnapped cabaret singer,” for whatever reason. You just do.
How the tension between those two develops sets the series of events in the book in motion. Often I’ll have no idea how that story is going to play out when I start the book. I’ll have a pretty good idea in my head and in my heart how I want it to end, the feeling I want the reader to have, who I want to be left standing — do I want Silent Joe alive or dead? Well, that’s a pretty big difference — but how you’re going to get there and what these consequences are along the way are part of the job, the excitement, the frustration, and the ultimate thrill of pulling together a great story.
How difficult is it to craft a character who is seriously bat-shit crazy?
I think what makes characters interesting on the page is excessive desires — believable and sympathetic — but still what we would call excessive. As a writer, it’s always more interesting to write about a character who’s willing to go to 11 on a scale of 10. That’s where fun fiction really starts. If we’re all writing about prescribed, rational, well-mannered people, then I might just want to go quail hunting instead. I like the obsessive character. All you have to do to find good obsession and good excessive desires is to look honestly into your own character and your own heart. I look at mine. My desires in my dreams are always excessive; they’re always obsessive and exaggerated. You always want far more than you need. You always want the car with way more horsepower than you could possibly use. I need a $99,000 Tesla so I can go 160 mph in eight seconds. “Oh, really?” Now, would you rather write about that guy or the guy who says, “Nah, I’m sticking with my Explorer.”
What made you move away from the procedural format in Full Measure? I mean, it’s certainly worked for you. You are one of the only crime fiction writers who has an Edgar Award hat trick.
In 2010 a series of events happened that impacted Fallbrook, where I live. Plunging real estate values brought on by the Great Recession, a devastating fire, and the return of the 3/5 Darkhorse Marines [3rd Battalion 5th Marines] to Camp Pendleton, which lies just to the west of Fallbrook, from Afghanistan — who brought back stories of trauma and PTSD. I felt that I was living through an especially important chapter of American history — a dark and challenging time — and that the small city of Fallbrook was like a framed snapshot. It was a gift to me as a writer, [but] I felt like I had a solemn responsibility to the story, and it didn’t fit the format of a procedural.
Crazy Blood, like Full Measure, isn’t a procedural. But it does revisit similar Old Testament themes that appear in many of your novels, this time with a bit of Greek mythology in the mix.
On the first page the reader learns that Cynthia Carson, pregnant with her third child, is betrayed by her husband [whom she kills minutes after he has conceived a child with another woman]. Cynthia is a tough woman, but she’s got a screw loose and always has — and she lets that loose screw get the better of her. It’s about a bastard son and how his family reacts, how the other family reacts, and what’s going to happen with this guy and his half-brother who are the same age. [Two brothers, one legitimate, one not] was the perfect crucible for examining nature versus nurture, the gifts that God or nature gives you, or withholds, what you make of them later, and how much you can affect your own fate. In that moment Cynthia shoots her husband, the book is born. That moment is the instant in which one family becomes two families. And I think that’s just an interesting schematic.
Why did you choose Mammoth Mountain as the location?
Mammoth is a claustrophobic place that you can’t get away from easily, like the north of Scotland or Hamlet’s castle. Mammoth is like that. It sits at the top of one mountain, surrounded by others. There is no place to hide. Little places with defined borders that then become the entire universe for the people who are stuck there. Mammoth does remind me a bit of Elsinore. It’s this isolated place where princes live …
And where something is rotten?
Yes, exactly. Where something is rotten. It’s introduced and fully explained on the first page. And I like the idea that Adam Carson, the patriarch [and father of Cynthia’s husband], sits in his aerie up on the mountain and looks down on the little village, and he has a god’s dispassionate view of his own children and grandchildren. Because he, like the gods of old on Olympus, wants to be amused by them and he wants to see them do battle.
He wants a fair competition [between his two grandsons]. And we should tell everyone that in the book, as in a lot of ski resorts, the means of competition is skiing. This is a book about ski racing, and his two grandsons, Sky and Wylie, born of the same father and two different women, are very much alike and very different at the same time. And so we watch these two guys, Sky and Wylie, evolve and progress and move throughout the consequences of the novel towards their big showdown at the end of the book. The Mammoth Cup ski-cross race, which might lead the victors into a track towards the Olympics, becomes sort of a High Noon — but instead of a gunfight, it’s a ski race.
Do you consider Crazy Blood a noir novel?
Yes. And I played out that ending, the race between Sky and Wylie that leads to the conclusion of the book. It’s a ski-cross race, which is four competitors doing a downhill course at the same time — simultaneously — so there’s physical contact and strategies. It’s not against the clock; it’s between four guys racing each other, at 80 mph — very precarious, very hairy. When I came up to that race, I knew that it would either justify or ruin the book. It was all about the race — what happens and how well it’s written. So when I got to that point, I sketched out on paper all the variables that might happen in a four-man ski race: Who could win and why, who could lose and get hurt, who could go over the side, what might happen. And then all the consequences that would come from that. I realized going in that several different things could happen, and that I wanted a just but tragic ending to the book. And that had to be manifested somehow in the race and who wins it and what that win leads to. So I was very calculated about it, and I saw this as a darkly resolved story from the very beginning. Because without that darkness you just have a story about two guys who go to a ski race, but it’s much more than that.
It sounds like the two grandsons, Sky and Wylie, are looking for redemption in addition to a trophy for winning a race.
That’s a good point. They are in this tight nasty little race at bullet velocity for very different reasons. Yet the results that they are after are the same. Both of them have to win that race.
How do you think your fans are going to react to Crazy Blood?
They’re certainly going to agree that it’s Parker’s coldest novel. [Laughs] I think that my fans and readers will enjoy this book. They’ll be grabbed by the first page, pleasurably seduced into these characters and their worlds and what they’re trying to accomplish and the different reasons Wylie and Sky have for wanting to win this race. I think my readers are going to really like the tightly drawn, focused characters. One of the things I worked hard on and like about this book — and I think my readers will — is that every little thing in it has a consequence. It’s a very intense little laboratory: when you add a drop of this, it causes a drop of that, so that the consequences and the actions and reactions that go on in this test tube mix together and become more and more complicated. I think that’s part of the richness of reading a novel: that the little things become part of the bigger fabric, so by the time you finish reading the book it’s almost like you’ve got this piece of fabric that’s unbreakable. You can stretch it and it will go back into shape.
They will like the ski racing scenes. As a writer I can say that writing action is the most difficult thing to do. You don’t get a camera and you don’t get any music and you don’t get any actors. You get paper and ink and you have to say what it’s like for these two guys to be running this ski race. I wrote those races over and over and over again. I went over the race scenes again after the ARC came out, so the scenes are even better and tighter and shorter and I hope more full of impact. I think my readers are going to dig the action.
Nancie Clare is currently writing a book about the origins of Beverly Hills, forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books. She is also co-creator of the podcast Speaking of Mysteries (speakingofmysteries.com).