TO DIE AND LIVE IN L.A.: DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI'S CALIFORNIA BEAR
Duane Swierczynski is the Sam Raimi of fiction. He smashes genres and subgenres together and often places the absurd, horrifying, and humanist together, with overlap that can be off kilter yet still justified in the narrative. Comic book writing and collaborations with James Patterson has taken him from from solo novels n the past few years, but he has come back with a vengeance in California Bear.
The story moves between four characters. Swierczynski first introduces us to the title character, a senior serial killer contemplating into getting back into the game in the M.O. Joe Lansdale would write with this human monster reveling in his past actions and what he will do to futures victims as he looks for his wife's hiding stash of cookies. Next, we get introduced to a character dubbed "Killer", a man pulled out of prison from a murder stretch by an ex-cop who wants to use him for a blackmail scheme. The ex-cop's ex wife who uses the title Gene Jeanie for her genealogy business gets pulled into the scheme. At the center of the story is The Girl Detective, a fifteen year old, trying to clear her father's murder rap before she succumbs to leukemia.
Swierczynski draws these people and their stories together through a work-a-day L..A. with strong forward plotting. As a word painter, he has refined his instinct of when to use the broad strokes and when to move into fine detail. We feel for the characters, except for The Bear, as we get to know them and their relationships to one another. Even after he major twist, we never lose the trajectory of these people and their stories.
All of them are defined by these titles. Each chapter is one of their P.O.V.'s with their nicknames as the heading, even after we know their actual names and each proves to have a relationship to it. Killer wishes to shed his, though feels he deserves it. The California Bear yearns to regain his and use it spread fear. Gene Jeanie playfully applies hers professionally. The Girl Detective's allows her not to be thought of as a victim. At the end, the survivors get their real names when they have come to terms with themselves and others.
Sweirczynski's depiction of L.A. is different than most. As the story grows, Hollywood hustlers move in to cash in on The California Bear. However, the author never indicts the town itself. he simply sees it as an industry town that reflects the product society demands from it.
Knowing Duane a little and what he has been through while writing California Bear, it's easy to see it as his most personal work. The book not only holds the influences of Lansdale, but Elmore Leonard style characters and plotting and a touch of Raymond covers outlook and attitude. That said, those influences are only used to enhance his own clear pulp with pathos voice. he creates a story with death all around that becomes his most life affirming.