California Coast Road mysteries by Elizabeth C. Ward play out along Coast Highway 1, that thin black ribbon unwinding along the continents edge, its characters fleeing memory and danger in a landscape that hides and then betrays them.   Jake Martin, Laguna writer and sometime detective in his little green 1950s MG, pursues both hunter and prey through the small beach towns strung out along the road like beads on a string, past dune and canyon, clinging precariously to the Santa Inez mountains and Big Sur as they plunge a thousand feet down into the Big Sur.  And always there is the sea, dangerous and beautiful, eating away at the land.




Old Millicent, sunburned, wrinkled, nut brown, plants her easel boldly in the field overlooking the sea and the little town of Laguna.  Brush clamped firmly between ancient fingers stumps across the canvas, darts and jabs. Paints the sun as it moves down the sky.  Does not hear the bullet, hardly feels it as she falls.

Jake Martin, long time neighbor and friend, steeped in guilt, follows the killer’s trail south across the border to Ensenada, north to Big Sur.  The search takes him into Millicent’s vanished world of  the 1920s when the plein air artists, Rose, Mannheim, Wendt, Kleitsch, Crowe, came down to build summer shacks, roam the hills behind Laguna, paint field and cove, swim, fall in love.  Plant the seeds for a series of murders seventy years later.

“The fog turned to rain at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  Water poured across the road and threatened to wash the car off the cliffs.   I turned the windshield wipers to high and slowed to a crawl.  The first few houses, a shack bonded onto a rock, another tucked away in the canyon, hunkered down against the rain, closed and hostile.

I drove another five miles up the highway to Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. The dining room was closed.   The woman at the desk took pity on me and brought me a bowl of soup from the kitchen.  A small loaf of bread came with it and a glass of dry white wine.  I sat at a window by the fire and watched the rain sweep up Castro Canyon, blow across the road and over the already sodden snapdragons in the window box.  A Mozart piano sonata was piped in from somewhere out of the walls.

No one came in or out of the hotel.  The woman at the desk folded napkins as she eyed the rain and waited for a customer to straggle in.  A car crept south on the highway.  The windshield wipers struggled against the downpour.  The driver’s face was pressed to the window.  The car pulled into the parking lot and stopped.  Rain beat down on the hood. The blurred face behind the wheel gazed out at the historic collection of ramshackle hotel cottages that straggled up the canyon.  The woman opened the door to the Inn and looked out.   A gust of wind blew inside.  The driver put the car in reverse and crept south again.”


The Coast Road series, The Laguna Contracts, Coast Highway 1, A Nice Little Beach Town and Death in a California Landscape, was written over three decades, chronicling as it happened, the changing California coast from a more innocent time when hippies arranged themselves like flowers on street corners of Laguna until the sun bleached, salt encrusted houses in the small beach towns, closed and abandoned in winter, were discovered and the exodus of the affluent flowed in a constant stream from inland cities to Laguna and Newport, Mendocino and Tamales Bay and the wild fields and hills between, bringing with them a new set of values and a new kind of crime.


“Laguna is black at night and all the streets run down to the sea.  They are empty at two o’clock in the morning and cold.  I walked the two blocks down to the highway , then up past the hotel and art stores to Thalia.  The street ends about fifty feet above the beach and the steps go down to the rocks.  At high tide the waves break on the last steps but tonight there was enough sand at the bottom for about eight policemen, a rescue crew, two night people who happened by, and a long black body in a wetsuit.”


COAST HIGHWAY 1    (1980)

“The girl lay diagonally across the patio like a splash of red paint from an artist’s brush.  The scarlet coat was bunched around her, one arm flung over her head towards the door as though reaching for it.  Dark hair fell forward over her face already gathering tiny pearl beads from the mist falling over the canyon.   It caught on the wool fibers of her coat and the outstretched hand.  The blood, pooled beneath her, began to wash away into  the bricks.  I took off my sweater and covered the girl and then called the police.  I sat beside her until they came, leaning over the small still form as though, against reason, to shield her from the cold and the softly falling mist.”


“I pulled Sven’s outboard motor boat in from its moorings and motored up the bay toward the estuary.  It was almost dawn  The islands floated low in the water, dark as tombs.  Past the bridge, under Coast Highway, I cut the motor and let the boat drift while the sky turned grey.  The bluffs rose a hundred feet on all sides.  I was completely cut off from the rest of the world.  Mist moved in patches over the water.  Islands appeared and disappeared beneath it as in a conjurer’s trick.  I let the boat drift up through the mudflats with the current. I could feel Sven, or whatever was left of him, in the boat with me.  I felt a momentary panic as I lost my bearings, a man adrift with only a ghost for companion.”





            He stood by the seawall with his ridiculous suitcase and looked at me with obvious annoyance.   I could not think of what I had done to offend him. He was the typical prep school teacher.  I can spot them with the accuracy of an accomplished birder coming upon a long billed egret  – which in some ways he resembled.   He was tall, but stooped, his head folded down under his wing, a habit, I supposed, from all that bending over desks and listening with cocked ear to student confessions.  He looked a little lost.  Teachers often do.  It’s stepping out of the classroom which they control and finding themselves in the treacherous waters of the real world that does for them.    Prep schools are full of men like him.  You can spot them a mile away.  Odd.  Disoriented.  Shy.  What innocents!  I’d cut my teeth on men like him.  It was so absurdly simple!  But this one had rainbows coming out of his mouth.  And he was looking at me.

I spoke first.  It seemed the natural thing to do.  I think I remarked on the sun, or maybe it was the harbor, the boats darting back and forth like swallows over the sea.   He must have heard me.  We were only a few feet apart but instead of answering he gave me a single intense look, and then turned abruptly and left.

I started to call him back.  I might have steered him to a proper boarding house.  But the ridiculous man ignored me.  I heaved my backpack up over my shoulder and clambered up onto the sea wall in search of a place to spend the night. I would like to say I forgot about him completely, but that is not true.  Standing there on the quay, invoking the fates, I had found my muse.  God knows why.

It was him.


The seduction begins on the Ile de Mer, an island in the Mediterranean so small and unimportant that no one is quite sure to which country it belongs.   Three people meet there by chance (or is it?): Thalia, vibrant, alarmingly young, a would-be writer seeking her muse and fastening improbably on Kneedler, the shy skittish school teacher “ all knobs and joints with black hair like a rush of ink.”  Waters, the narrator, a once successful New York editor long retired to the island, casts his cynical eye on the romance and Thalia’s relentless pursuit of Kneedler, while he schemes his own sly and perfidious seduction.

Part humor, part romance, Muse probes the explosive workings of the creative mind, its relationship to sex, the passion with which both are negotiated and, finally, the way in which reality and imagination collide and become art.

Muse is available at Barnes & NobleAmazon and anywhere great books are sold.