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Almost four years ago I enthusiastically reviewed Elizabeth C. Ward’s Coast Highway 1 as “a fairly essential Coast Road Read,” and now Ms. Ward returns with another must-read for California coast enthusiasts or for anyone who enjoys a good mystery: Death in a California Landscape.

Set in Laguna Beach, Ms. Ward gracefully depicts the type of people who characterize Laguna: “Everyone who’d lived in town more than a dozen years knew Millicent. They called to offer help or stammer out their grief. They all expressed shock and disbelief. The Laguna family, that great, motley collection of eccentrics and artistic sensibilities, beach lovers, wildlife activists, gay, straight, old, young, every political philosophy on the map, con artist, best selling novelists in view houses, unsold poets living out their Waldens in the canyon, physicist and feng shui counselor shacked up together, the larger than life egos; this whole sprawling, prickery, generous, opinionated, cantankerous Laguna family was coming together to stand by one of their own.”

The callers phoned Jake Martin, the same Jake Martin from Ms. Ward’s Coast Highway 1, returning as our noir narrator and unintentional private eye. Jake’s dear friend Millicent is found shot to death. Detective Swann suspects foul play, maybe even suspects Jake.  Jake knows that Millicent, albeit in her eighties was full of life and not planning to die.  Jake senses murder, but why and by who?

Millicent was the last living member of the original California plein air artists who painted the landscape that is now covered with cities sprawling across the hills and along the coast. Could the killer be one of those who make their fortunes off subdivisions and model home communities? The art museum curator informs Jake, “Developers are the largest collectors. They seem to feel that it is their responsibility to preserve the vision of the land as it was before they sliced it up and built malls and housing tracts on top of it. One would think they’d want to get rid of the evidence of what it was before they ruined it.”

To solve the mystery in Death in a California Landscape we travel with Jake Martin up and down the California coast from Laguna Canyon to Crystal Cove, with a few trips up to Newport Beach, a side trip to Ensenada, and then north to Big Sur. Death in a California Landscape delivers on its title by including the scenery in the text. Jake Martin puts us in the passenger seat as he drives up the coast, “I drove PCH through the coast cities to the traffic circle in Long Beach, north on the 405, then west to Santa Monica and Coast Highway 1. The morning fog burned off just past Oxnard where the road widened and 101 came in from the valley. From there on the sea was blue, the kelp beds rising and falling in the swells until the road curved inland and the sea was lost behind it. I turned onto the narrower and less traveled Coast Highway 1 towards Morro Bay and the Big Sur. I made San Simeon by eleven. Hearst Castle shimmered in the distance, sun turreted and dream veiled, a mirage that had floated out of the Arabian Nights, taken a wrong turn somewhere and come to rest on the far crest of the California foothills. From there on the road began to climb along the edge of the Santa Lucia range. The Big Sur is not for the faint of heart. Cliffs drop a thousand feet straight down into the Pacific Ocean on one side. Mountains rise steeply on the other. The road unwinds between the two.”

Elizabeth C. Ward’s Coast Road Mystery, Death in a California Landscape, serves as a retreat from the holiday frenzy this December. Download to your Kindle or pick-up the book. Death in a California Landscape also makes for a fine gift. Happy Holidays!

Click for Ms. Ward’s website.

 

 

 

 

I am not without hope of delighting to find the essential Coast Road novel.  Expectations defined in a previous post on two Coast Road-titled books ended with a request that, at the very least, when a book is titled, “The Coast Road,” then the reader better find plenty of setting along the Coast Road.

Elizabeth C. Ward’s 1983, Coast Highway 1, has it all:  A pissy, Stanford alum, University of Irvine comparative literature professor who translates nineteenth-century Spanish novelists, and intentionally grades his best student’s extraordinary paper a B+.  Jake Martin finds the extraordinary student lying dead one foggy morning, under the bougainvillea of his Spanish stucco courtyard.

“It was too late to go home, even for a change of clothes.  I bought a map of the coast highway and headed south.”   Jake Martin exits his next locations (Balboa Bay Club, San Juan Capistrano, Encinitas, even Ensenada), always in the nick-of-time.  Bullets prod his every departure.

A twist in the plot turns Jake northward, and soon he is north of Santa Monica, above Malibu, “Point Magu [sic].  One last strange rock, alone and seaward, like some forgotten giant or a period at the end of a sentence.  Beyond that are the flats of the Ventura Valley, the firing range, the naval base, the Pacific missile range, pale fields with only the tips of the summer crop greening the land.  Highway 1 hurries across it as though to get to the other side quickly, before the sea sweeps in again and wipes it clean.”

The reader finds plenty of setting along the Coast Road.  In Pismo Beach, Jake races through Oceano Dunes to evade a dune-buggying pursuer.  To reach some inland locales, such as Jake’s side-trip to Stanford campus, Elizabeth Ward writes, “I left the sea at Pescadero and turned inland through the artichokes and up into the redwood canyons that wind up to Skyline Drive.”  At Fort Point, Jake exchanges words under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge with the sergeant assigned to the case.

Penciled edits in the copy that I read, made me laugh out loud.  The first edit is found when Jake Martin carries his investigation to Pacific Heights in San Francisco.  Elizabeth C. Ward describes the streets of his location as, “…on California, between Jackson and Clay.”  A savvy reader before me penciled in three parallel lines next to this paragraph, and named each: California, Clay, Jackson.  To the right of the paragraph, this editor/reader wrote, “BETWEEN?” and then, for good measure on the page, a deeply-leaded “!”

Later, the same scribe slashed an “r” in “Monterrey,” with an admonishment, “One “ARE” in our Monterey!”

Elizabeth C. Ward includes the environmental movement and Robinson Jeffers in her Coast Highway 1.  In the victim’s photography book on estuaries of the California coast, “Jennifer had used Jeffer’s words as the only text in her book and the photographs were worthy of a poet.  The eye that had looked through the lens had lingered on the detail of wing and seed and ripple of water.  Had recorded the reflection of insect and reed and marsh grass.  It had gloried in the sweep of sky and the boundless still-spaces of the estuary.”

The gnarliest chase scene occurs, briefly, as a coast road run through the Big Sur coastscape.  “No backwoods roads lead to the safety of highway arteries further inland.  There is no escape except by foot into terrain where only the wildcat and the red-tailed hawk survive.  Once committed, there is no way out.  Set a roadblock, one at each end, and a man is trapped here forever.  Fugitive, he is defeated, finally, not by the men at either end, but by the mountains themselves and the sea swirling below.”

Elizabeth C. Ward’s Coast Highway 1, is fairly essential as a Coast Road Read.  It is certainly a bunch of fun to vicariously romp along its settings up and down the California coast.  Elizabeth wrote two other books, both published in the 1980s, A Nice Little Beach Town and The Lost Day.  Ms. Ward has lived in Newport Beach for most of her life.

Available Used.

A little article on Ms. Ward.

“Most of these individuals are very, very, very private individuals,” says Thomas G. Veal, an Irvine Co. vice president. “These are high net-worth individuals, so they are very concerned about security.””

“The type of buyer is unique, too. Whereas some spend millions to be neighbors with shirtless frat boys and other party animals in West Newport, the homeowner in Newport Coast will find a carefully staged environment where flower gardens are symmetrical, and even the gardeners are nicely dressed.”

Full story redirect to OC Register, click here.

 

Yuck.

Coast Road Twit

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Final DraftNovember 30th, 2013
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