Review: California Bear
By Duane Swierczynski
pub date: 09-Jan-2024 Mulholland Books
NONE OF YOU ARE SAFE
“KILLER”: Jack Queen has been exonerated and freed from prison thanks to retired LAPD officer Cato Hightower. But when guilt gnaws at Jack, he admits: “I actually did it.” To which Hightower responds: “Yeah, no kidding.” You see, the ex-cop has a special job in mind for the ex-con…
THE GIRL DETECTIVE: Fifteen-year-old Matilda Finnerty has been handed a potential death sentence in the form of a leukemia diagnosis. But that’s not going to stop her from tackling the most important mystery of her life: Is her father guilty of murder?
GENE JEANIE: Jeanie Hightower mends family trees for a living, but the genealogist is unable to repair her own marriage. And her soon-to-be ex may have entangled her in a scheme that has drawn the bloody wrath of…
THE BEAR: A prolific serial killer who disappeared forty years ago, who is only now emerging from hibernation when the conditions are just right. And this time, the California Bear is not content to hunt in the shadows…
From two-time Edgar nominee Duane Swierczynski, California Bear is clever, moving, and surprising as it takes aim at the true crime industry, Hollywood, justice, and the killers inside us all.
This review is provided courtesy of NetGalley. It’s been a privilege to read the latest crime fiction thriller by Duane Swierczynski. When I read the summary of this book, I wasn’t sure my review would be necessary to put out there into the world (it probably isn’t). I’m doing it anyway because I noticed that the larger media outlets weren’t being specific about why they loved California Bear. Mulholland Books has blurbs from James Patterson and Michael Connolly. It’s not like they’re looking for mine, the average reader. You can expect this review to be more than five targeted keywords for SEO.
Is California Bear “fresh, exciting, and brilliantly unpredictable” as James Patterson said? Hell yes, it sure is.
In this story, Swierczynski takes his cast of characters and gives them reunions, introductions, estrangement, and expected and unexpected teaming up time. The heart of the story is The Girl Detective and that’s how her point of view is referenced. She’s Matilda, a nearly fifteen-year-old high school who is more worried about completing her English assignment than her cancer diagnosis. It’s all because her assignment, rather than a standard book report or essay, is to prove her father’s innocence since he’s just been released from prison for murder. This impassioned young sleuth distracts herself from all the chemotherapy, needles, constant interruptions by nurses, and wanting to reject the pity of others. She dives into this case about the serial killer known as the California Bear alongside the cold case of the real estate tycoon who had been run over and subsequently killed.
The Father is Jack “Killer” Queen, a former jazz musician who only wants to get the City of Los Angeles settlement money so he can focus on his only daughter. Throughout “Killer’s” point of view, readers get to experience how long and complicated the grieving process is. Does Jack have Complex PTSD? I’m not a doctor, but he probably does. Prison alone will do that do a person; and Jack has been through the loss of his wife, his career, his freedom, and now the tragedy of Matilda’s leukemia. Here’s a man with the nickname Killer who had attorneys dictate to him how and when to show emotions, then incarcerated where you should not show “weakness,” and now he’s paying the piper as the saying goes. There’s dark poetry in how confused this hardened man feels the mental and physical repercussions of grief.
Any reader would want what Jack “Killer” Queen wants—to be reunited with his daughter and work his ass off trying to get out of the past. He simply never gets a break. You feel for him every single time his friend, an ex-cop and present alcoholic named Cato Hightower, ropes Jack into yet another mission to pay him back for getting him out of prison on a technicality.
Everyone begins to wonder, where was the California Bear this whole time he’s been dormant? Can the new advent of forensic genealogy prove this prolific serial killer’s identity? The genealogist (named Jeanie) is Hightower’s wife and she believes she can link DNA through the family tree.
In walks the “gift” of true crime mania which has swept the entertainment industry. A streaming show is in the works which plans to reveal the identity of the California Bear and tastelessly create reenactments at the actual locations of his murders in a Blair Witch Project way where the actors playing the victims don’t know when it’s coming. The producer has everything in place including a well-known action star to don the bear mask and clawing glove. The unethical, profit-driven producer who obviously knows the serial killer’s identity, is shown for what he is. Even when the plans for the show seem to be at a loss, he comes up with a twist to keep it alive.
That’s not the only twist. There are many in California Bear. With four main perspectives narrating the story, there are more twists than Lombard Street. Who keeps killing like the Bear after the real Bear is dead? Is this part of the show? Is it a rabid fan or a family member? Who is the next target?
There are going to be a barrage of questions after each section of the book which are broken into brief chapters with the changing perspectives. Keep guessing. Then second guess yourself. Then realize you’ve never had anything right throughout the mystery of the serial killer known as the California Bear.
Rating: 5 stars
I had already known about why Swierczynski created The Girl Detective, Matilda. His daughter Evie died from leukemia. While sitting by her bedside for those months in Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, he needed a narrative he could control unlike his real world. When she passed right before Halloween in 2018, Swierczynski wasn’t sure he would ever finish this book or any other. Fortunately, Evie’s memory is a blessing and a strong one at that. Her love of books, storytelling, crime (real and fictional), and horror are shared annually during a book drive by The Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation which distributes the donated books people have purchased and gives them to children who need their own distractions in the hospital. They also hold blood drives which are always needed.
You can order California Bear by Duane Swierczynski through Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA. They’re responsible for the annual book drive in Evie’s memory.