Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman write thrillers ripped from the Berkeley headlines

‘Half Moon Bay,’ by the father and son duo, is just one of hundreds of novels published in the past few decades that have been set in Berkeley.

“On a damp Saturday, just last year, the sixties died in Berkeley.
On Sunday, I came for the bones.”

That’s the opening for Half Moon Bay, the new crime thriller featuring Alameda County Deputy Sheriff Clay Edison written by the father-and-son team Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman.

The opening pages seem ripped from the headlines. In the novel, UC Berkeley has just erected a chain-link fence around People’s Park which promptly “had been scaled, sheared open, knocked down.” The protest and vandalism came as demonstrators tried to stop the university from erecting student housing in the park.

Those exact events happened for the first time in January, but the Kellermans wrote their story years ago. Half Moon Bay was published in July.


“Everything we are seeing now is described in the first pages of the book,” said Jesse Kellerman, who lives in Berkeley (his father lives in Los Angeles).

Including the turmoil around People’s Park in the third book of the Clay Edison crime series was a no-brainer, said Kellerman. As a writer, he is always on the lookout for dramatic situations and interesting people he can incorporate into his work. Berkeley, with its citizen activists, protest culture, and certified flashpoints involving the university, development, and fights for the rights of people, including Blacks and the Ohlone, is always good fodder.

“You don’t have to be a prophet to know that the minute Cal does something concrete toward putting up a building there and demolishing the park that people are going to be distressed, that some contingent is going to push back,” said the younger Kellerman.

Half Moon Bay is just one of the hundreds of novels that include Berkeley as a setting. For decades, writers have used the city and its events as plot lines. Isabel Allende set her 2013 novel, Maya’s Notebook, largely in Berkeley. Anthony Boucher set several of his science fiction tales in the city. Susan Dunlap’s crime series features Jill Smith, a Berkeley detective. Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums has Berkeley scenes as does April Sinclair’s Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice.  Many children’s books take place in Berkeley, including Beverly Cleary’s Mitch and Amy and Hope Alper’s The Chanukah Bears of Marin Circle, among others.

There is no tally of how many books have been set in Berkeley but enough have been that the Berkeley Public Library keeps a running list of such books.  (It features more than 200 and was last updated in 2012). Randal Brandt, head of cataloging at the UC Berkeley Library, has curated a list of mysteries set in the Bay Area and there are more than 2,500. He believes 115 mysteries have been set here. Berkeleyside also regularly runs features about books with a Berkeley connection.

Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman. Photo: Joan Allen

Sometimes Berkeley’s liberal values are highlighted, not just its parks and sidewalks, as was the case in Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy. The 2017 novel tells the story of an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who goes to work for a wealthy, liberal Berkeley family. When she is targeted for deportation, the family takes in her infant son and complications ensue. “Lucky Boy is set in Berkeley, and told with warmth and empathy, but with a keen eye for the sometimes well-meaning delusions of the privileged,” Marthine Satris wrote in a Berkeleyside Q&A with the author.

“I think that Berkeley is a very particular place in that it’s filled with people with excellent intentions,” said Sekaran. “People want the best for everyone: for immigrants, for nonimmigrants, for undocumented immigrants. But it’s also a place of great privilege, and sometimes those two elements don’t mix; sometimes people’s good intentions blind them to their own insensitivities.”

When the Kellerman duo sets out to create a new mystery series (Jonathan, who has published nearly 60 books is best known for his series featuring Alex Delaware. Jesse has published more than 10 books. Faye Kellerman, Jonathan’s wife and Jesse’s mother is also a very accomplished novelist) they knew they wanted to make the East Bay the setting, a locale the Kellermans believe is underrepresented in contemporary literature.

“The East Bay is a place that has gotten some literary attention but, in my opinion, not enough attention, and actually in the thriller genre very, very little,” said Jesse Kellerman. “We try to move the lens around to different spots in the East Bay. Not so much San Francisco because that has its own noir history. We don’t need to retread that. But everything else, Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, all the outlying areas, Livermore, even down on the Peninsula – places that have not gotten enough attention.”

The other Clay Edison books (Crime Scene, A Measure of Darkness) were set partly in Berkeley and partly around other East Bay locales. But Jesse Kellerman wanted Half Moon Bay to center on where he lives.

“I wanted this to be an intensely Berkeley-focused book because I live here too,” said Kellerman who moved here to be with his wife, who grew up in Berkeley. The couple has three young children. “I wanted to drill down to the very core of what makes Berkeley, Berkeley. I’m invested in this place.”

And People’s Park is an epicenter of Berkeley, so it makes sense to set a book there, said Kellerman. He was quick to point out that the park is not the only epicenter of Berkeley but one of many.

How does a novelist take ideas or events that are swirling around and put them into prose?

It’s not a linear process, said Kellerman. He looks at true events and draws out elements he think would be interesting to readers.

For example, Jonathan Kellerman collects old copies of True Detective Magazine and sends issue with Northern California events to his son. One issue that caught Jesse Kellerman’s attention was from November 1955. It told the story of Stephanie Bryan, a 13-year-old girl who disappeared while walking up the stairs behind the Claremont Hotel. Her disappearance launched the biggest manhunt in Berkeley history. Tragically, her body was later found. Her murder shattered many Berkeley residents’ notion that they lived in a safe community.

“I’d never heard of this case before I read this, which is kind of incredible because she disappeared from a spot maybe 500 yards from my house, very very close to where I live,” said Kellerman.

The disappearance of 13-year-old Stephanie Bryan in 1955 shattered many Berkeley residents’ notion that they lived in a safe community.

He and his father would never fictionalize that story. But there are elements, small details, of the case that intrigue him. Like how Berkeley police ended up catching the killer. The murderer, Burton Abbot, a 27-year-old accounting student at UC Berkeley, had kept a souvenir of Byron’s — her red purse with an ID card inside His wife found it and alerted the cops.

“Just an idea. That one small thing, a wife discovering something she can’t explain in her basement, her husband’s attempt to provide an innocuous explanation for how this came to be in their house… you can build out a story from this germ.”

As for Half Moon Bay, Kellerman is a regular reader of Berkeleyside and took note when UC Berkeley announced it would build a 1,200 student housing structure at People’s Park, as well as supportive housing for about 150 formerly homeless people. He knew immediately that it would make a good plot point.

The Kellermans’ protagonist, Clay Edison, investigates cold cases. So the authors created one. When bulldozers tear apart the Free Speech Stage to prep the site for housing, the body of an infant is found. Clay Edison, a deputy sheriff assigned to the coroner’s office, investigates.

The duo’s next novel, The Burning, is coming out later this year. One of its plot points? The massive wildfires that have consumed California in recent years.