The murder of a beauty queen in Southern California in 1968 becomes the first big case of Detective Nick Becker's career. He and his brothers have continually crossed paths with the victim, Janelle Vonn, and her family, so he takes his duty to find her killer quite seriously.
The book actually opens in the present day, as Nick is approached by his journalist brother Andy Becker, who says that the wrong person was arrested. This is what prompts Nick's journey into the past and his recollection of the investigation. There are also viewpoints from Andy as he inadvertently uncovers clues through his job as a journalist, as well as oldest brother David Becker, who becomes a preacher and tries to pull the community together through his sermons.
"California Girl" won the Edgar Award in 2004 for Outstanding Mystery. My guess is that there were slim pickings that year, as this is one of the dullest books I have ever read. This isn't so much a crime novel as it is an attempt at a sweeping family history and an exploration of how a single crime affects multiple people. Parker does a pretty good job of evoking time and place, but that doesn't make his story any more interesting. To say this moves at a snail's pace is being kind.
I suspect that those who decided this was the most outstanding mystery of 2004 like a crime novel with ambition; one that transcends the genre. Something like Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River". But this is insulting. The mystery here is pathetic. At page 257, our protagonist moans that he's two weeks into his investigation and he has no suspects. That translates to wasting more than two hours of the reader's time because absolutely f*** all has happened. Although it is apparent early on who the culprit is, we still have to trawl along well past 450 pages to the point where Nick and his detective partner Lobdell finally arrest the wrong guy.
This is NOT a mystery. This is barely a crime novel. It should NOT have won any awards reserved for this genre. If I want a family saga that explores a particular time and place in history, I want more than a meandering borefest with gratuitous cameos from Richard Nixon, Timothy Leary and Charles Manson. This book aims at some sort of profundity and completely blows it. Lisa Jackson is beginning to look like a viable alternative again. Yikes.