I learned that much from Wikipedia. With the affluence and utter drop dead beauty of the place, it’s also the nurturing home of culture and counter-culture, plus surfing. Nearby Emerald Bay is an even more exclusive tract of distinct multi-million dollar homes. Again drop dead gorgeous, or so I imagine. Average temp year-round is about 70F.
Such a semi-sealed beach front jewel sounds to me like the ideal locale in which to set a mystery or suspense novel. I’ve always been fondest of my occasional reads in this genre when they are set in a place that I’d love to escape to. That’s why I read a whole slew of early Hillerman mysteries (which are the better ones), you know The Skinwalkers guy, because they are set in the great American Southwest which I love.
But I worry that readers of The Next Right Thing who expect a conventional mystery suspense novel will be disappointed. Although classic elements of the genre are there, there’s a wild card in the plot that spins the story in a much more original direction. The wild card is AA. In this case, it seems more like Narcotics Anonymous than Alcoholics Anonymous.
Randy is an ex-cop who was kicked off the nearby Santa Ana police force for nearly beating a suspect to death. Even Randy’s girlfriend, MP, has her suspicions that this thuggish behavior might have been racially motivated. The suspect was Mexican. Randy is a big guy with his anger on a slow constant boil. I have to put it this way because that’s the way I saw it: He likes to beat people up. Of course, he usually thinks that he has his reasons. And he usually thinks he has reformed.
Randy is thrown off the force and is lucky not to be in jail. He’s changed careers and is a rocking successful home designer. His home designs regularly appear in posh shelter magazines like Dwell. Randy lives in an award winning house that he designed himself in Laguna Beach. His dining room table is solid burl walnut. He has an Eames chair on white plank flooring.
When the cops visit him since he’s under suspicion, they’re convinced he must be a big time dope dealer based on the way he’s living. But it’s all honest cash. He’s in a position to lend his best friend Terry 50K, just because Terry asked.
If you find it hard to get your head around an ex-cop who becomes an exclusive home designer, the bridge is AA. Terry is more than Randy’s best friend, He was also Randy’s sponsor in AA. Terry asked Randy, his life a wreck, what he would want to do if he could do anything. Then Terry made sure that Randy went back to school and earned the credentials that enabled him to design homes.
It’s hard for an outsider to describe these AA relationships. Terry, an AA icon, is Randy’s father, older brother, mentor and best friend all at once. And now Terry is dead in a cheap motel room, his system saturated with drugs.
Randy can’t believe it’s not a setup. So he puts on a blue blazer and pretends he’s still a cop. What did Terry get into that led him to this suspicious death?
I love Randy. When he throws a coffee table at a guy he’s having a conversation with, Randy is incensed that it’s cheap Formica.
Dan Barden has written a great ensemble cast novel. I’ve spent time covering Randy and mentioned Terry, who appears in flashbacks. But there are lots of other appealing characters.
There’s Randy’s troubled ex-wife and his daughter, Allison, who Randy calls Crash. There’s Randy”s AA friend with a canine sense of devotion, named Wade, who reminds me of the kind of dumb guy that Keanu Reeves used to play. There’s Randy’s barista, the totally cool French guy, Jean Claude. Randy’s sister Betsy, the most beautiful lesbian in Laguna Beach, and her partner, Jeep. There’s Claire, the whore and devoted mother who’s a piece of work. John Sewell, the slimy, ultra-confident lawyer who’s trying to move in on Randy’s ex-wife. There’s a handy man named after a dog. And there’s the young Southland version of Romeo and Juliet, made up of fluffy muscle boy Troy who’s always bringing up his mob connections that Randy doesn’t believe he has, and Troy’s wayward girlfriend, Emma, with her pierced navel and a personal space that’s eccentrically her own.
That’s not the whole cast, just a sample. But hovering over them all is the unique character and philosophy of AA and of its recovering members, trying to reach out to the light. This is a serious novel with elements of genre fiction. It’s a novel where characters call each other dude. And I’ve never heard so many straight guys say they loved each other. The Next Right Thing can be funny and it can be dead serious. It’s always entertaining.
And, oh hell, I wish I were in Laguna Beach at least once in a while!
The Next Right Thing by Dan Barden is due in March, 2012 from Dial Press.