THE ZUCCHINI MONTHS

Summer in Santa Barbara imparts a muggy, furtive atmosphere, bringing tourists on the prowl. Novels of mysteries and suspense are – to use bookstore terminology – “laid down” on the display tables. Shrubbery and trees are given buzz cuts against the onset of the fire season.

These are in the zucchini months, wherein we locals add to the summery sense of extraordinary growth and hidden agenda that so intrigue the tourists. We skulk about, carrying oddly wrapped packages of elongated squash to plunk furtively on the front porches of neighbors. Returning home, we discover packages even more oddly (and creatively) wrapped than our own, captioned with the Santa Barbara equivalent of a reverse ransom note. Thought you’d enjoy these.

Take my zucchini. Please!

There is nothing for it except to retreat to the shade with a mystery novel.

There are several distinctive qualities that distinguish mystery and suspense novels set in Southern and Central California from all others. Of these local fingerprints, one is of particular significance: consequences of climate.

Back in the days when Raymond Chandler was defining the genre, democratizing crime and moving it to the Los Angeles basin, we begin to notice the effect of the Santa Ana winds on the dramatis personae. Ross Macdonald and Dennis Lynds were also given to adding these scorching, desert-like blasts to the surroundings, quickly upping the ante to fire.

Today, a mystery or suspense novel without a lurking natural disaster – earthquake, pelting rain, fog, heat wave, killer tide, sliding mountains, serious fire – is suspect.

Fire is the big one, being fanned by Santa Ana winds or simply gobbling up probable real estate on its own volition. In a real sense, fire becomes another character, one that careens about the scenery with mindless purpose.

The driving presence in Scott Frost’s novel, “Never Fear” (Putnam) is Alex Delillo, a single mother, Pasadena homicide detective. Close on her heels is a fire, one that seriously threatens her home, remaining throughout the text like an uninvited relative. Not far behind the hungry maw of the fire is another troglodyte, the LAPD, one more large, seemingly unmanageable force.

Alex, who believed she was an only child, discovers for the first time that she has a half-brother. The present time elements of the story begin when she is called by the coroner’s office to identify his corpse. LAPD says suicide. From that disconcerting telephone call onward, her life cannot and will not be the same:

In the distance, the San Gabriels rose into the bleached

sky above Pasadena. A gust of wind swept across the surface of

the river, nearly knocking me off my feet. The air felt as if one

misstruck match and all of Los Angeles would disappear in flames.

Soon enough, Alex.

Working with Dylan Harrison, another Pasadena detective, Alex asks for some information from LAPD, only to be told to take the suicide as an absolute. Back off. No investigation, even from a distance. Any indication that Alex is pursuing inquiry will bring immediate charges against her of interfering with a case in progress. This becomes a pivotal scene, more for characterization than plot. During a terse, edgy exchange between Alex, Harrison, and Williams, the LAPD detective, Alex’s skills as a detective and her lieutenant’s grade are established. By no means a misfit, Williams is clearly trying his hand at bluster. “How the hell did you ever get into homicide?” Alex asks him in response.

A few more sharp exchanges and Williams warns her off. “Stay the hell out of my investigation.”

“From where I stand, Detective, I’ve seen no indication of any investigation at all.”

Now the story begins moving in earnest.

Using the flimsiest of plausible excuses, Alex pursues inquiry, discovers Williams with his throat slashed and meets her late half-brother’s girlfriend. From that point, Scott Frost moves us back and forth in time, providing individuals who are a part of a puzzle that continues to open new discoveries – things not being what they seem, characters not being as they represent themselves.

One of the many clichés we discover in the mystery-suspense novel is the suicide that is not a suicide. Thanks to Scott Frost, Alex Delillo’s cop instincts rush us through that hurdle like a security guard expelling a protester in a session of congress, the process giving us a sense of how real cops think (or how they ought to think).

Enough things of an emotional or physical nature happen to Alex that Harrison asks her, too many times, “Are you okay?” Another of the things we encounter in suspense novels is the protagonist, having been asked this question, shrugging it off. Not Alex. Harrison has good reason to ask and Alex has good reason to nod yes or to wince. Getting us through these two cliché road blocks with such ease makes Alex all the more believable, her involvement all the more tangible.

Seventeen years ago, or so the story goes, three young women were killed, their bodies left in the same locale along the banks of the Los Angeles River. If you guess where the corpse of Alex’s newly discovered half brother was discovered, you have solved nothing; rather, you’ve dug yourself in for a series of events that could only have happened in L.A. – and even that aspect is covered in the wrap-up of this complex case.

One more clue: two of the three young women victims attended acting classes given by the father Alex has not seen since she was five years old. It is a lovely clue, but it will not lead you where you think.

Mystery novels have the ability to approximate literature when they move beyond the violence-for-violence’s-sake of writers such as Mickey Spillane. They dramatize plausible, sophisticated motives that take us beneath the surface of plot-driven outlines, playing on the ache of conscience, the nag of regret, and attempts to move beyond a moment when things moved beyond control.

“Never Fear” reaches admirably toward literature, much as the early novels of Dennis Lehane do and, indeed as many of the Ruth Rendell police procedurals do. Long after we finish them, they make us think of persons caught in the traps of their lives, looking for answers, all aware in one way or another of a world in which justice is as big a player as fire is in Southern California.