Interview with Susan Dunlap, Murder Mystery Writer

Susan Dunlap is a well known Bay Area mystery writer with multiple series featuring strong female characters. Since my focus was on Berkeley, my interview was narrowed to her series featuring Jill Smith, a fictional police detective for the Berkeley Police Department.

2/10/2020, 12:00 noon
Phone Interview with Susan Dunlap

I noticed that both you and Jill Smith were transplants to Berkeley. How much of the Jill Smith character is you?

When you write in the first person, you show more of yourself than you realize, so let that be a warning.

I knew that old time residents would know things in a way an outsider couldn’t; they’d have history.  There’d be things they just didn’t have to explain.  But readers aren’t Berkeleyans and I wanted to explain it from their perspective.  So, I made Jill Smith a transplant so the reader would experience Berkeley as a she did, using some humor. It helped explain Berkeley in a way that readers would understand.

There are places in Berkeley that I recognized when I went to visit, but there are some places/streets that don’t seem exist.

Is there really a path across the street from Chez Panisse [A Dinner to Die For] ? I get asked that a lot. The answer is No, It doesn’t exist. It’s poetic license.

Being too specific is an unnecessary nuisance for a writer. Too much specific detail could infringe on somebody else’s privacy. I aimed at getting the feel of Berkeley. In my mind, Berkeley is a major character in the Jill Smith Series.

Earthman, in A Dinner to Die For lived in a flop house, would even that be possible today?

No, any flop houses would have been torn down for expensive housing.

Ortmans Ice Cream shop existed as did Fat Apple. What about Wally’s Donut Café?

Wally’s was made up. One of my cop friends was upset with the penchant Jill had for donuts and fast food. She and most of the cops on the force were health conscious.

Police in Berkeley seemed to have a reputation as being more mellow. For instance, men could have beards. What do you attribute that to?

The police force in Berkeley are more highly educated and there were more women on the force in the eighties than there were in other agencies.

I read in one of your interviews that you had attended the Police Civilian Academy, can you expand on that?

Going to the police academy as a civilian outsider was valuable. As the name suggests, non-law enforcement people were invited to attend a civilian police academy. Most of the attendees were representatives from civic and interest groups. Speakers from different areas of law enforcement/justice system would be invited to come in and make presentations. I was the outsider so I could ask the bratty questions no one else would.

What were the most memorable things about it?  The morgue for one. And we participated in officer simulations.  I was especially impressed with the Shoot – Don’t Shoot simulation. There was a video of a crime – or perhaps not a crime – of someone running from a crime scene. We took the role of the cop.  We had to make a decision whether or not to shoot. I was amazed at how quickly cops had to make that decision. Even if the perpetrator is guilty (and dangerous) you had to be aware of what was behind him if you shot. If he ran in front of a hedge, for instance, and we shot and missed, might we kill someone on the other side of the hedge.  All that in a split second.  And, we had to think about what we were using as protection. Standing behind cardboard vs. the protection of a car door.

We also went on ride along with street cops which was helpful in getting the feel of their jobs. On my ride along, we got a call about a missing person, a man with dementia. The city is really good about this.  Every beat officer searched her beat street by street, checking both sides, stopping and going into likely places.  It took hours, but we found him!

That must have been helpful to you in the way you describe Jill Smith’s tracking down of people

Yes, the more specifics you can use the better. Because there’s a lot you can’t be specific about because you don’t know, or it doesn’t suit your plot, So, if you can write about something you do know it enhances the sense of authenticity.

I read a long time ago an article that bemoaned the death of student protests at Berkeley. Do you think the student population/culture has changed?

Back in the 70’s people really believed that they could make a change. Most people don’t believe that now. Plus, housing is so expensive now that students are focusing more of their efforts on just living. The shift and influence of technology has spread from San Francisco to surrounding areas. The focus in Berkeley has shifted from arty to more tech oriented. Students are more serious.

What other ways have you seen Berkeley change since the eighties?

Berkeley, as I wrote about it, doesn’t exist anymore. Berkeley has become more ordinary, more like other cities. For instance, Jill Smith living in a converted porch was a sign of the times. You could live in a converted porch knowing that you had options. You could always move. Money was looser than. I could work half time and pay the bills with a part time salary which gave me time to write. That wouldn’t be possible today.

My friends and I who have lived here a long time talk about that a lot. It’s the influx of the tech market from the bay area that has caused more expensive housing and living costs. People don’t have the time they used to explore their dreams and be creative.  It’s hard for a family to find a two bedroom apartment in Berkeley when landlords can rent it to five students.

In Jill Smith’s day Berkeley’s efforts at helping the homeless then seemed like a good and new idea. Rainbow Village [Too Close to the Edge] was a sanctioned motor home camp in a parking lot on the marina. But after a while problems came up, the homeless population has grown larger and the costs of housing is so high now. Berkeley has tried to solve the problem but they’re running out of things to try.

There have been technology changes since the 1980s, like I noticed Jill stopping by a telephone booth to make a phone call. You can’t find telephone booths around anymore.

(Laughter) The advent of cell phones was a sudden and major problem to the mystery writers then. A lot of plots had characters who’d lost their cell phones and phones without charges. Clues that once were easy to disguise became transparent. It took a while for cellphone to become such a part of life that you automatically considered them. Now you can track someone’s travels through their phone. Databases are more up to date and connected now than they were.

Do you think Berkeley still has vestiges of its personality? For instance, the hidden pathways that go through people’s back yards in the hills seem to me to be part of Berkeley’s charm, landscape affecting behavior?

A friend of mine and I got a map of all the pathways and explored all of them. It’s funny, you can take a path and not know where you’ll end up. In, I think, the 1930’s when housing was laid out in the North Berkeley hills, pathways were created to funnel men to tram stations for their commutes, so that they could leave their cars at home with their wives who could use them during the day for errands and grocery shopping.

People still come to Berkeley drawn by its reputation. There is a sense of individual freedom left over from its arty sensibilities, it’s history of demonstrations, and partly from being a college town. In the summer there is an influx of students from other countries and it’s good to hear all the different languages in the street. 

Telegraph Avenue

Lee, a long-time Vendor on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, CA

The headshops and Indian clothing that used to characterize it are giving way to boutiques and gelato shops, but the sidewalks are still filled with street artists. Students and former students still ponder their goods.

Susan Dunlap, Not Exactly a Brahmin, 1985 (p46)

Telegraph Avenue is one of the landmarks that Susan Dunlap used to anchor her stories to a location. It is a unique and identifiable stretch of Berkeley. In 2020, the street artists are still there and a headshop still exists. Local eateries have been replaced by chains. Stores sell UC Berkeley t-shirts that used to be sold only on campus. Vintage and retro clothing stores have popped up, and the streets are still filled with students and tourists.

Lee, who is one of our favorite earring venders, came to San Francisco in 1969 from New York. She moved to the East Bay in 1971, and has been a vendor on Telegraph Avenue for many, many years, selling her creations of earrings, rings, necklaces, ear cuffs, and dream catchers. While we perused her earrings, she talked about the changes she had seen on Telegraph: more chains, the campus’s elimination of the food vendors, the high rise buildings coming in. She still felt though that Berkeley’s culture was still unique.

A tall thin man came by to talk to her; his surfer look weathered by life. A silver bracelet with a large pale chrystal wrapped around his wrist gleamed in the pale February light. They talked about his daughter, then he leaned in and touched her arm gently and she signed some sort of blessing towards him before he turned and left. I noticed him later, leaning against a store wall. She explained that she knew his late wife who had a booth next to hers. She and his wife used to watch over his daughter when she was a baby. Now that baby was an adult living with him. She shook her head in amazement.

Lee, like the street vendors in Dunlap’s mysteries, knew everyone on Telegraph Avenue.

People’s Park – now and then

This park was no longer the domain of carefree “flower children.” It was as dangerous as any park in the city.

Susan Dunlap, As a Favor (1984)

People’s Park, now as it was in 1984, was not a place I wanted to hang out in. The bathroom – painted in the colorful hues of the 60’s – had closed metal gates across the doorways. The pungent smell of old urine was strong, even at 15 feet away. The stage once a platform for speeches and free concerts was now someone’s home, their belongings piled in bags on one side while they sat possessively nearby. A converted school bus with cardboard taped to the inside windows for privacy, seemed to have permanently settled under the two-hour parking sign. A man practicing basketball ignored the sleeping man at the other end of the court. At the far corner of the park, men sat in groups talking loudly, their appearance ragged, their casual indifference to us studied.

The struggle for People’s Park exemplified the sixties. Activists claimed the vacant lot for a park when the University of Berkeley wanted to develop it. After protests that resulted in injuries during conflict with the National Guard, the University backed away from their development plans. The activists created a park for the people but by the eighties it was a place where the homeless and drug addicts hung out.

People’s Park is slated for development once more. The University of Berkeley plans include housing for 1,000 students, apartments for 75-125 homeless, and open space memorializing the history of People’s Park. The plans are not without it’s protestors. The University plans to hold meetings for public input.

Bear Fountain – Marin Avenue

From the traffic circle, I looked up Marin Avenue. It was as steep as any street in San Francisco.

Susan Dunlap, Not Exactly a Brahmin, 1985 (p 14)

The Bear Fountain at the Marin Avenue roundabout didn’t exist at the time Susan Dunlap used the circle as the murder scene. The victim, Ralph Palmerston, had crashed into the concrete barriers when his brakes failed as he was driving down Marin Avenue.

The original Bear Fountain, coincidently, was destroyed by a truck driver whose brakes had failed coming down the last two blocks of Marin Avenue. It was estimated that he was doing sixty when the truck crashed into the fountain. The fountain was rebuilt in 1992.

Marin Avenue is a sharp slant that leads up to the Berkeley hills. My back flattened against the seat as my husband drove his aging Prius up the hill to the narrow streets that wind their way through the hills. Between the narrow streets and the cars parked along the sides, most of the streets in the hills are effectively one lane. My hands clutched the arm rests as we turned around the corners. Sometimes we yielded and sometimes the other drivers yielded as we encountered each other.

Coming down Marin Avenue is the ride-your-brakes situation that Dunlap refers to in both A Dinner to Die For and Not Exactly a Brahmin.

Houses jostle for space from the Berkeley flatlands up the hillside to Grizzly Peak. Between Grizzly Peak and the wilderness of Tilden Park to the east are a few streets and cul-de-sacs of homes with views that jack their selling prices up toward half a million dollars. Ralph Palmerston’s was one of these. It was a pale stucco Spanish style built around three sides of a twenty five-foot square courtyard, with the living room to the left, the garage to the right, and a bougainvillea-covered courtyard wall connecting them.

Susan Dunlap, Not Exactly a Brahmin, p 14

There is no house on Grizzly Peak Blvd that fits the description of Palmerston’s house. As she mentions in her interview, Dunlap had made up a house, building or street that is just an amalgam of existing real estate in Berkeley. Getting the flavor of Berkeley without causing distress to someone’s privacy.

The houses on the hill are unique. Some look like fairy tale cottages, some are distinctly modern, some are Spanish style – stucco with rounded archways. All are interesting. Many of the houses do have amazing views of the bay, but most are sited on heavily wooded sites.

The houses up here are expensive but amazingly, hidden pathways cut through backyards or in-between houses. Historically built as a means to walk to commute stations, they are now used as a fun way to explore Berkeley and get exercise. That the pathways still remain is, in a way, a reflection of the Berkeley culture: an openness to having strangers tromp through your yard, and a belief that most people are good.

Rainbow Village

In Too Close to the Edge, Susan Dunlap used the now defunct Rainbow Village as part of the plot of her book. Rainbow village was a sanctioned camp for homeless people with RV’s. It really was located in a beautiful spot with views across the bay. It was Berkeley’s attempt to help the homeless.

After a murder, and complaints from neighboring businesses, the tenants at Rainbow Village were evicted and the encampment closed. In my visit there, we did spot a few people here and there living in their cars, but the motorhomes and trailers were gone.

Berkeley, like many cities in California, is facing an affordable housing crisis. Cheap rent just doesn’t exist anymore. The flop houses like those described in Dunlap’s books just don’t exist. There are a myriad of reasons that can cause someone to be homeless, but not being able to find someplace affordable is a major one. Tent cities pop up, generating complaints that force action, vacated only to pop up again.

Gourmet Ghetto

Susan Dunlap’s A Dinner to Die For (1987) is a delicious murder mystery featuring Gourmet Ghetto and introducing a memorable character, Earth Man.

The block described as being behind Chez Panisse does not exist, but Gourmet Ghetto does. Gourmet Ghetto is the section of Shattack Avenue between Rose Street and Hearst that was the home of – and some would say the start of – California Cusine.

As of 2019, the moniker of Gourmet Ghetto was dropped quietly but thankfully many of the originating food places endures. Chez Panisse, the Cheese Board, and Peets still endure.

Fat Apples, not in Gourmet Ghetto but a neighborhood restaurant mentioned in several of Susan Dunlap’s mysteries is still here as well. Wally’s Donut Café never existed.

Berkeley was and is a place where people still wait in long lines for their favorite bread at a bakery or pizza at the Cheese Board. The line often goes out the door and extends to the end of the block for the pizza at the Cheese board. The menu is limited to the pizza and salad of the day, and buffalo mozzarella ice cream. Its not cheap but damn its good. The flavor combinations are original, amazing and surprisingly meatless. Local bands play to the open air seating and the people waiting patently in line. People watching there is fun, as the crowd is a mix of older locals, young moms, students and professionals.

We stopped by Peets on a sunny day in late January for coffee and a treat. The interior was a satisfying mixture of old wood, large windows, antiques and large stained glass like light fixtures. There was a comfortable low hum of conversation and a mixture of Berkeley locals: an aging hippie with a white beard and wild white hair, a young couple, a preppy well dressed man in his forties, and around behind the coffee bar a narrow alcove with a narrow counter and outlets for laptops. It was a place that knew the sanctity of coffee and, judging by the plaques on the wall, recognized its place in the startup of coffee shops. It did not disappoint. The ginger cookie was fresh with grated ginger and the coffee was hot, strong and rich. If I were a local, this would be my favorite haunt.

Summary

Berkeley, as I wrote about it, doesn’t exist anymore. Berkeley has become more ordinary, more like other cities. For instance, Jill Smith living in a converted porch was a sign of the times. You could live in a converted porch knowing that you had options. You could always move. Money was looser than. I could work half time and pay the bills with a part time salary which gave me time to write. That wouldn’t be possible, today.

Susan Dunlap

A city’s culture is made up of its historical landscape, current socio-economic trends, and the people who live there. Berkeley in the 1980’s was a liberal post in a time of conservative politics (Reagan years). It was also a time of change in Berkeley. Yuppies were moving in. The 60’s mantra of love and peace was changing to one of conspicuous consumption nationwide, as reflected in the popular tv shows of that time: Dynasty, Dallas, PI Magnum. Big hair, bright bling and brighter makeup was in. Chain stores were replacing small stores. California cuisine became a popular and pricier trend. But, Berkeley still had its free thinkers, it’s students, its artists, and its university.

When I asked Susan about students then versus students now she pointed out that they were more serious. Because of the high cost of housing, they couldn’t afford the freedom to pursue art. “The focus in Berkeley has shifted from arty to more tech oriented. Students are more serious.”

Berkeley has changed. As Susan pointed out, the rise in technology has pushed up housing costs from San Francisco to its surrounding areas. Real estate speculation has also risen sharply, and gentrification is pushing out average wage earners from the housing market in the north bay as well as the east bay.

I asked if Berkeley still had vestiges of the personality it was known for and her answer gave me hope:

People still come to Berkeley drawn by its reputation. There is a sense of individual freedom, left over from its arty sensibilities, it’s history of demonstrations, and partly from being a college town. In the summer there is an influx of students from other countries and its good to hear all the different languages in the street.

Susan Dunlap