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A Down-Home Thriller


The Mystery-Writing Mind of J.F. Freedman, Author of A Killing in the Valley

by Matt Kettmann

Few locales scream storybook more than Santa Barbara County, where urban sophistication and extravagant wealth smash into colorful California history and the rural realities of cowboy-land. So it’s no wonder that the region makes an excellent setting for novels, the latest of which is J.F. Freedman’s A Killing in the Valley.

A whodunit, detective/courtroom thriller, Freedman’s page-turner begins with, as you might expect, a killing in the Santa Ynez Valley, where a young Latina high schooler is raped and then accidentally shot on the ranch of a prominent landowning matron. Freedman, who lives on Santa Barbara’s Upper Eastside and has set a couple of his eight previous novels in town, brings back his popular characters Luke Garrison, a district attorney turned defense lawyer, and Kate Blanchard, a single mother and private detective. Both were protagonists in previous books, but this is the first novel in which each share major roles. Specifically, Blanchard (whose youngest daughter Sophia also comes into the mix) works as Garrison’s private investigator, and together they defend the ranch owner’s grandson, who is the lead suspect in the murder.

Freedman first stumbled upon Santa Barbara when he was writing and directing a movie produced by Michael Douglas, who lived here at the time. With his first child on the way, Freedman decided it would be “a nice place to slow down a bit.” That was 26 years ago.

In addition to the familiar locations, what makes A Killing in the Valley engaging is its attention to detail. Freedman does his research, relying on the true-to-life info from cops, attorneys — “You can’t live in this town without knowing a lot of lawyers,” he quipped — and even detectives. (As to the latter, Blanchard bears a striking resemblance to S.B. PI Lynn McLaren. Freedman invented Blanchard before ever meeting McLaren, but the real-life detective is now one of his primary sources.) Freedman explained, “People tend to be very helpful. They like the idea of accuracy.” In this novel, for instance, Freedman consulted the county coroner about body decomposition, Dodge City gun shop employees about bullet types, and the owner of Rancho San Fernando Rey for clues on the ranching life. “I try to be as real and as specific as possible,” said Freedman, adding that readers of crime novels are especially concerned with realism. “You could make it up, but someone’s gonna catch it.” As a novelist and television screenwriter, Freedman’s plate is decidedly full. He’s set aside a novel set in Los Angeles — “I want to write a real L.A. book,” he said — to finish a television screenplay about a magazine. The script was originally requested by a friend in Russian television — an “exploding” market — but the Muscovites eventually declined. So now he’s crafting it for American audiences. He’s also toiling away on his first children’s book, something fanciful along the line of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. It won’t be for any of his three kids, though, since they’re all grown up: One daughter works for a magazine in New York City, the other daughter (a loose model for Sophia Blanchard) is attending UC Santa Cruz, and his son is a cameraman in L.A.

There is, however, a slight catch to obtaining a copy of Freedman’s latest novel. After releasing his previous books through Penguin and then Warner Books, Freedman found a new publisher in Madison Park Press, the imprint that Bookspan — which owns all of the major book clubs in the country — launched in October 2005. That means that the only way to buy A Killing in the Valley is to join one of Bookspan’s 35-plus book clubs, from the self-explanatory Book-of-the-Month Club (bomc.com) and Doubleday Book Club (doubledaybookclub.com) to zooba.com and the Literary Guild. (In the future, the book may be released in bookstores as a paperback.)

Freedman admitted that the new publisher and book-­­ club-only structure is somewhat of an experiment, and that he enjoys seeing his work on bookstore shelves — but he’s optimistic. “It’s a good way to get books cheaper, even cheaper than Amazon. And there’s millions of subscribers,” he said. At the end of the day, however, it’s all about getting his novel into the hands of fans. “I want people to read them,” Freedman said. “As a writer, that’s all you want.”

4·1·1 Freedman will make an appearance at Borders on State Street, Thursday, August 10. For a copy of A Killing in the Valley, visit bomc.com or any of the book clubs owned by Bookspan. For more on Freedman, visit jffreedman.com.



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