Darcy Lott
(creator: Susan Dunlap)

Susan Dunlap
Darcy Lott is, when we first meet her, a 39-year-old professional stuntwoman whose speciality is high falls. She does a lot of work for films - but apart from at the very start, there is little about this in the first book. She is also an American style Zen Buddhist. She was work leader/head server at the Ninth Street Zen Center in San Francisco, and goes on to become jisha (assistant to the roshi, the spiritual leader) in the remote Redwood Canyon monastery, a couple of hours north of Santa Rosa in California, where nearly all the action takes place. "The jisha is the one closest to the roshi himself. It's he who watches over the roshi's schedule, reminds him when he's falling behind. He brings the roshi his coffee in the morning, checks with him last thing at night, and is in and out of his quarters ten times during the day. If the roshi ponders, he's the one in front of whom he ponders."

"Buddhism," she explains, "is common in San Francisco, though not in our family" but "like my oldest sister's collecting commemorative salt and pepper shakers, it was an odd enthusiasm the family had accepted". Then, after dutifully bowing to the statue of the Buddha, she admits, "I felt just the tiniest bit a fraud. Skepticism was what had lured me to Zen to begin with. I couldn't imagine ever being without it". Exactly what she means by this isn't very clear.

She has a phobia about going into the woods, dating from a Nasty Experience when she was four. She was "the youngest by far of us seven Lott children". Apart from that, we only learn about her from the way she narrates the story (she does this throughout, except for a few pages written, oddly enough, by an external narrator). She emerges as caring, conscientious, and determined.

Susan Dunlap (1943- ) is the author of a large number of novels including the Jill Smith series about a Berkeley police officer. She earned a BA in English from Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in 1965, and a MA in English from the University of South Carolina in 1966. She married Newell Dunlap in 1970, worked as a social worker, and her day jobs have ranged from teaching hatha yoga to working on a death penalty defense team. She and her husband live in Albany, a small community just north of Berkeley near San Francisco. She is an ex-president of Sisters in Crime. She explains that, "Darcy Lott's interests are the things that I'm fascinated by. All of them can be classified as: Things are not as they seem."

A Single Eye (2006)
A Single Eye sees Darcy Lott being sent by her Zen master to a remote monastery in California's redwood forest with a message for its Roshi (teacher/leader). She is told to "keep an eye open" because odd things have been happening there. It turns out that Aeneas, an eccentric student, had disappeared and is feared dead. That was after he'd run off with and hidden the Buddha statue, and "raced through the grounds waving a gin bottle". The roshi, Leo Garson-roshi, is also about to leave under mysterious circumstances. But he is poisoned and Darcy, who has become his jisha (assistant) feels she must investigate.

The picture that emerges of Californian Zen Buddhists is interesting if bizarre, and there is frequent use of terms like sesshin, zazen, zendo, sensi and dokusan (some of which are explained, and some not). "We sit zazen to experience being inseparable from the wonder of the moment", we are told. It is explained that "Buddhism is a religion; Zen is the practice of looking into yourself, peeling off layers till you find your essential emptiness". You can do this, it seems, by sitting for hours facing a blank wall and meditating. When asked what the point of it was, Darcy answers, "The traditional Zen answer is 'Nothing. You don't get anything because you already have everything; it's just that you don't realise it - yet.' "

Although doubtless "the wheel of the Dharma was turning", it was moving pretty slowly as the story unfolds, too slowly always to hold the interest. And, although there is some dramatic action, particularly at the end, it is not really as exciting as it might be, partly because the characters can be quite difficult to identify with. What is really interesting is the attempted American adoption of Buddhist beliefs: all these rather odd characters (including a man who seems to live just for making chocolate) trying to work out the basic Zen tenet: "Life is illusion". Or "Fundamentally nothing exists". It was the runaway student who "could see Reality, of course, but no one knew that. To his family, to everyone, he was a guy going wacko".

Hungry Ghosts (2008)
Hungry Ghosts in Buddhist lore have huge bellies and needle-thin necks, and - because they cannot swallow the food they crave - their hunger is insatiable. But it is living ghosts who threaten stunt double Darcy Lott when she returns to San Francisco to serve as assistant to her Zen teacher, Leo Garson, in his new zendo. Darcy brings her own ghosts along as well. She is haunted by the disappearance of her beloved brother Mike and his estrangement from her family. From a turret on top of a San Francisco Victorian building, as she prepares for a 35 foot dive to the sidewalk, she spots Mike on the roof of the zendo. By the time she reaches the roof, he has gone. When someone else she cares about disappears the next day, she fears the past is about to repeat itself. But she is unable to convince anyone of the danger, even her oldest brother, a police detective - until a brutal murder shocks them all.

It is Darcy who tells the story almost throughout. It is three months since the events described in the first book and still, according to the Zen truth, "Things are what they are, no more than that; the rest is just unreal thoughts." But the book gets off to a gripping start when Darcy almost gets killed in what turns out to be a really dangerous stunt. It is part of her job as the roshi's assistant to take care of roshi Leo Garson, and this proves to be nothing if not challenging. For one thing, it turns out that the new accomodation of the Zen Center has been provided free of charge by a mysterious Eamon Lafferty, and no one knows what his motives could be. Then one of Darcy's stunts is mysteriously sabotaged by the removal of safety padding and she is almost killed.

Darcy turns to her Zen Buddhism to help her "experience the gap between desire and reality." She leads the chanting and "by the time we reached form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form, the words seemed to encompass us and .... life and death."

Although the early dramatic scenes are described with considerable verve, the pace slackens as the story progresses. The references to a "dare group" of people who dare each other to do dangerous things ("the bigger, more dangerous, more stupid the better") seem rather implausible when it is explained that there were members "all over the country, a loose network. It was almost like a religion, or a cult." And the set pieces at the end involving Darcy being locked in a tunnel (but finding a way out) and becoming involved in a deadly car chase are strangely unaffecting. But the descriptions of Darcy's stunts make this a more interesting book than the previous one.

Civil Twilight (2009)
Civil Twilight tells how stuntwoman Darcy Lott is persuaded by her lawyer brother Gary to entertain an mysterious client called Karen Johnson, who seems to be fearless, smart and interested in the Zen Buddhism that Darcy herself practices – but there is something odd about her. Karen claims to be getting a divorce, but then why hire Gary, who never handles divorce cases? And why does he insist on hiding the case from the older brother John, a police officer? Then Karen's body is found on a roadway, and the primary suspect is John himself. With her family forced into hiding, Darcy is left alone with no one to trust. Determined to save her brother, she delves deep into Karen's past, eventually sorting out what has really been going on.

It makes quite an interesting story, although Darcy is not really much of a detective, relying more on a mixture of luck and coincidence than any reasoning skills of her own, and her occasional Buddhist thoughts do not seem to offer her much practical help. So when she phones to ask Leo, the Buddhist abbot whom she assists, how a woman like Karen could change from what she thought she was, he tells her, “You're thinking of life like a pearl necklace – pearls strung on a thread. Wrong. Life is” – he rapped the receiver – “this moment” – rap – “this moment” – rap – “this moment. Nothing more. Only pearls. No thread. Moment, moment, moment, nothing between.”
“And yet – ”
He'd hung up!
Only pearls, no thread. I knew it intellectually, but still I couldn't stop believing I was the thread. That Karen was a thread. And what was driving me crazy was how one end of the thread became the other.”

However, even though the characters are not always all that interesting, there are some exciting parts as when Darcy breaks into Karen's old house, and there's a crooked Chief of Detectives who is a constant threat, but, as before, the most intriguing parts of the story are the descriptions of Darcy's stunts but unfortunately these are few and far between. There are still occasional mentions of Darcy's missing elder brother Mike who had disappeared when she was only 15 - but these do not seem to lead anywhere.

Power Slide (2010)
Power Slide starts with Darcy Lott getting ready to perform a power slide - a dangerous trick in which she has to fall off a bike and skid under an eighteen-wheeler, driven by her intermittent boyfriend and fellow stunt driver Damon Guthrie. But he, most unusually, makes a mistake and her life is threatened. As she starts a new relationship with him, she discovers that his past is riddled with unanswered questions - and then he disappears. She gradually discovers that he was not all the person she thought she had known. No wonder she keeps exclaiming Omigod!

The story gets increasingly unlikely as she visits a remote and secret stunt ranch (complete with mysterious chimneys) hidden in the desert and run by a woman with (as revealed to us in a melodramatic moment) a horrifyingly disfigured face. Even Darcy comments, "The whole thing's crazy" and, although she gets involved in a whole series of dramatic enough episodes, it is hard to take her too seriously or feel involved enough to care, even when she ends up bound and gagged in a speeding truck. But what's 60 mph to a stunt double like her? She just awaits her chance and throws herself out!

Meanwhile her siblings have been pressuring her to make one last all-or-nothing search for Mike, their missing brother, although why, after 20 years, they decide this should be the final search is oddly explained by her sister, "Emotionally, we're all still sitting in Mom's living room waiting for the phone to ring or Mike to walk back in. And Mom, it's worse for her. Darcy, it's got to stop." But why wait 20 years to save Mom from the strain? Anyway, the secret is eventually uncovered - although more by good luck than management, although Mike's reason for hiding away for 20 years seems far from convincing.

It all makes a strange mixture, involving stunts (the best part, if not always strictly relevant), snippets of San Francisco-type Buddhism ("an aspiration of Zen students is to be not so much in the moment as an integral part of the moment") and a conventional solve-the-mystery search - but unfortunately it does not quite do justice to any of them.


On the internet, there is quite an interesting1998 interview with the author about her earlier books. Her books are listed and summarised on the fantasticfiction site. She also has her own informative website.




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A Single Eye cover
The story is not really as full of exciting action as the cover suggests.
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