An author writes mysterious paeans to the city where everyone is wacky.
If there’s any literary genre to which Berkeley lends itself, it’s the satire. Most writers, though, wouldn’t base a murder mystery in a locale that’s practically synonymous with letting it all hang out. But then, Susan Dunlap isn’t most writers. The author of four ongoing crime-fiction series and several award-winning short stories, Dunlap is best known for her “Jill Smith” mysteries set in the home of Free Speech, free love and wallet-busting cappuccinos.
Ostensibly, the series revolves around Jill, a scrappy homicide investigator for the Berkeley Police Department who struggles to reconcile that professional role with her own “just say no” attitude toward authority. Smart and sassy on the one hand, as neurotically self-doubting as Annie Hall on the other, Jill makes an appealing feet-of-clay protagonist. But the real star of the Jill Smith books is, in fact, the city of Berkeley itself, lovingly but humorously depicted by Dunlap in all its wacky, countercultural, iconoclastic glory.
Although the wild and woolly cast of characters that populate the series might seem exotic to readers outside the Bay Area, locals know that Dunlap didn’t create her dramatis personae out of whole cloth. Telegraph Avenue street people, Gourmet Ghetto foodies, revolutionaries who never got over the Sixties, hippies turned die-hard capitalists and (not to be judgmental) hopeless head-cases like the nut in A Dinner to Die For who struts around town in a bird costume—you know the type. “If you can’t enjoy the peculiarities of your fellow citizens, you’d better not live in Berkeley,” Dunlap writes in Sudden Exposure, a thriller inspired by the “Naked Guy” kerfuffle of 1992. (The Naked Guy, young ‘uns, was a real-life Cal student, Andrew Martinez, who insisted on his right to attend class in the buff, which led to his expulsion, which led to a legendary Berkeley City Council meeting that morphed into a strip show, all of which was duly disseminated on national news as yet another “Only in Berkeley” story. When Martinez died last year at the ago of 33—he committed suicide in a San Jose jail—even the New York Times Sunday magazine ran a bio.)
A visit to the home that Dunlap shares with her husband, a retired editor, reveals the writer to be a woman who, like the free-spirited Jill, owns very little furniture. Ironically—if there’s anyone who “enjoys the peculiarities” of Berkeley-ites, it’s Dunlap—the couple resides across the border in Albany, in a bungalow whose chief attraction was a large yard suitable for the large dog that has long since passed on. Dunlap sleeps on a futon and sits on the floor to write, but there is no shortage of books and Buddhist icons, as well as little tchotchkes and five-and-dime toys, strewn about the house. The trinkets are not for the amusement of grandchildren: parenting was never a path Dunlap wanted to follow. “In my house, I am the child,” she explains. Her aversion to cooking is so severe that she uses the oven as a storage unit. The one state-of-the-art appliance she owns is a new laptop computer, which she praises highly. The delete key, she says, is perfectly placed for the frequent use she gives it.
Originally from New Jersey, Dunlap was lured to California by a male friend in 1968 and promptly fell in love—not with him, but with the weather and the weirdness. “It was like I’d come to the home I hadn’t realized existed,” she recalls. A social worker at the time—she wouldn’t start writing in earnest for another four years—she didn’t yet know that she’d found not only her place in the world, but also a perpetual source of inspiration. “There are characters and quirks everywhere,” she says. “But Berkeley has provided for me in a way that I can’t imagine any other place doing. When I showed up for the city council meeting about the Nudity Ordinance, it was like they all said, ‘Oh, Sue Dunlap is here! Let’s write her first chapter for her.’ Over the years, the city has continually provided me with amusing topics—the Naked Guy, but also the tree ordinance, the Gourmet Ghetto ordinance, and, always, the municipal war against the car.”
Dunlap has also found deep affinity between her work and her chosen community in a more subtle way. The subtext of the mystery novel, she explains, is the vindication of the putative loser—“the lone-wolf detective, the abandoned victim, the non-professional forced to investigate a crime and face danger and the possibility that everyone who said they couldn’t handle it was right.” Similarly, she says, the city of Berkeley champions the underdog, providing support and legal protection for non-mainstream ideas and causes. “What impresses me most about Berkeley is the basic respect for the integrity of the individual,” she says. “Both the mystery novel and this city celebrate the importance of civil liberties.”
The transition from being a fan of Berkeley to being, as one interviewer put it, “the Bard of Berkeley,” began one day in 1972, as Dunlap sat reading an Agatha Christie novel in her living room. “I could do that,” she found herself saying aloud. There was a long pause, Dunlap recalls, as her husband of two months carefully considered his response. “Well, go ahead,” he finally said.
Like most neophyte novelists, Dunlap did not find publishers prostrating themselves at her feet. In fact, her first six manuscripts were turned down. What kept her going was that she received “increasingly better rejections” as time passed, in that editors who nixed one book would ask to see the next one. Optimistically, she interpreted their requests as encouragement rather than pro forma politeness. “I learned as I wrote,” she says, “and I could see afterwards mistakes that I’d made in one book that I wasn’t going to make again. I could see the possibilities that I hadn’t tried.”
Dunlap’s self-guided apprenticeship wasn’t limited strictly to writing. To bolster her knowledge of police work, she signed on for a 10-week Civilian Police Academy program through the Berkeley Police Department, learning esoteric skills like how to bring down oversize suspects and how to decide whether to shoot or hold fire. She attended autopsies—a feat that she says presented more bureaucratic roadblocks than emotional ones. “I have a very strong stomach,” she says. “And I’m fascinated by medical conditions that are not my own.” And she cultivated acquaintances in places high (the BPD) and low (People’s Park).
Finally, in 1981, a subsidiary of Harlequin Books accepted Karma, the debut Jill Smith novel. In 1984, a second Jill Smith appeared, as well as the first installment of a Russian River series featuring a PG&E meter reader and amateur sleuth Vejay Haskell. With her foot wedged in the door, Dunlap quit social work for good—a decision that initially resulted in months of “waking up at four in the morning sweating.”
Some 25 years and 23 published titles later, Dunlap has yet to run out of ingenious plots, diabolical murder weapons (her favorite so far being the poison dart inserted in the bicycle seat of an IRS agent in Death and Taxes) or enthusiasm. “The wonderful thing about mysteries is that because of the structure, the writer has the leeway to include a wide range of material, events and characters,” she says. In the late ’80s, she introduced a harder-edged series revolving around a private investigator with a nearly bionic immunity to fear—and, in a fine feminist flourish, a houseboy to handle the domestic chores that every Dunlapian heroine loathes. Last year, she launched yet another line with A Single Eye, featuring stuntwoman-turned-Zen-student Darcy Lott. A second Darcy Lott novel, Hungry Ghosts, is slated for publication late in 2007.
Productive as she may be, Dunlap is not a woman who leaps out of bed (or, more accurately, off the floor) in the morning and gets right to work. “I have the worst possible schedule,” she admits. A typical day starts with coffee and meditation (like Darcy, Dunlap is a serious Zen practitioner), followed by a walk or tai chi. “By then I often need more coffee, so I’ll go to Peet’s, maybe sit outside and read the paper with my latte.” Back at home, it’s time for breakfast, and returning phone calls. Around noon, Dunlap says, “There’s a moment of panic, and I sit down and turn my computer on.” But then there’s e-mail to read, perhaps a computer game calling her name, sometimes a pressing need for, yes, more coffee. “It’s not uncommon for it to be four in the afternoon before I start putting words on the page. That means I work into the evening, sometimes until 11 or 12. It’s not a system I would recommend!”
Still, life could be worse. Peet’s is nearby. The contracts keep rolling in. The Berkeley police have never complained about Dunlap’s sometimes snide depictions of their practices and procedures. Their only criticism is that Jill Smith eats too many doughnuts—in real life, the BPD prefers healthier snacks. Only in Berkeley! “It would be harder for me to write about San Francisco,” Dunlap muses. “Writing about ‘us’ is so much easier than writing about ‘them.’”
Autumn Stephens is the author of the Wild Women series of women’s history and humor, editor of the 2006 anthology, Secret Lives of Lawfully Wedded Wives, and a writing workshop facilitator. Much to her astonishment, she lives in Berkeley.