Sunday, September 11, 2011

Surf Noir: Get on Board

(Editor’s note: This essay comes from Denise Hamilton, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who has turned to crime-fiction writing. Hamilton is the author of five books in the Eve Diamond series, beginning with The Jasmine Trade [2001]. She also penned the standalone thriller, The Last Embrace, and edited Los Angeles Noir and Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics. Her new novel is Damage Control [Scribner], about a public relations “crisis manager” whose latest assignment forces her to confront troubles from her past.)

I’m a Los Angeles native, but unlike some beach worshippers here, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the sugar-white sands, swaying palms, and cold blue Pacific of my hometown.

Yes, it’s a postcard-perfect paradise. We Angelenos are longtime civic boosters and our Dream Factories have spread the Surfing, USA lifestyle around the globe.

But there’s also a dark side to beach culture. The cult of the body can approach narcissism. The golden sunlight bakes skin. And yesterday’s surf gods lurk on the fringes, nursing swollen beer bellies and incipient skin cancer and wondering when the endless summer turned to ash.

As a crime writer, I admit I see the world through a noir lens, and that includes our coastal playgrounds. My new novel, Damage Control, pivots on something awful that happens to some teenagers at a beach party one night, a memory that still haunts them 15 years later.

Turns out I’m in good company.

L.A.’s classic crime writers understood the atavistic pull of the tides and have explored its metaphoric possibilities for almost 80 years. For Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Horace McCoy, Leigh Brackett, and Dorothy B. Hughes, the Southern California coast was far from glamorous. It was a lonely and desperate place where dreams came to die.

Who can forget Horace McCoy’s slender 1935 novella, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which turned the Santa Monica Pier amusement park into a sadist’s amusement park where desperate people moved through tortured weeks of a Depression-era dance marathon.

The L.A. beaches of mid-20th-century crime novels are often cold and blanketed with fog. Dead bodies wash up with the tides. Pedophiles lurk in shotgun shacks overlooking decrepit Venice canals. The damp air breeds TB. Oil derricks stain the white sands black and the sea mist corrodes more than metal.

Leigh Brackett’s 1944 novel, No Good from a Corpse, unfolds against the backdrop of World War II. The entire coast is a “military dim-out zone.” Brackett describes the sea “lashing the beach with big thundering waves and then backing off with a slow hiss.” In Venice, we smell “a heavy pungence of oil and sump water under the clean salt ... there were derricks, thick as flies on a dead dog.”

As for the canals where today’s celebrities lounge in multi-million-dollar homes: “You wouldn’t want to swim there ... the banks are black with seeping oil, and the water’s black too, and it stinks. There aren’t any fish in it, now.”

In 1947, Dorothy B. Hughes wrote an under-sung masterpiece called In a Lonely Place. It’s narrated from the first-person perspective of a male serial killer who hunts his victims along the California Incline, the isolated road leading down to the Pacific Coast Highway.
He could hear the boom of the breakers far below, he could smell the sea smell in the fog. There was no visibility, save for the yellow pools of fog light on the road below, and the suggested skyline of the beach houses.

He was there for a long time. Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea. Lost in a lonely place. And the red knots tightened in his brain.
For Hughes, beach sand wasn’t a memento of lazy days at the seaside. It was a chilling clue to murder.

Coastal cities in L.A.’s hard-boiled noir world tended to be places of casual brutality and corrupt police. This is true for Chandler’s mythical “Bay City” and Brackett’s “Surf City” in the 1944 story, “I Feel Bad Killing You” (which was reprinted in Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics).

Ross Macdonald, who lived much of his life in picturesque Santa Barbara, often used the coast as a setting for murder and other unsavory doings. In 1962’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse, private eye Lew Archer is hired by a wealthy family to dig up dirt on their prospective son-in-law. Here’s Macdonald describing Zuma Beach at night:
Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marble black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.
Deep into the 1970s, crime writers voiced their doubts about the Southern California coast. Joseph Hansen created the first gay P.I. in fiction, Dave Brandstetter, and lived in Laguna, a rustic, genteel beach community in South Orange County. But in his 1976 short story “Surf” (also reprinted in Los Angeles Noir 2) he describes a sliding glass door in Marina del Rey that looks out “onto a marina where little white boats waited row on row like children’s coffins in the rain.”

But my favorite surf noir novel of the late 20th century is Kem Nunn’s magnificent Tapping the Source, which was a finalist for the 1984 National Book Award.

Set in Orange County’s Huntington Beach, Tapping the Source depicts a sleepy rustic beach town that no longer exists, bulldozed away as developers bought up the coastal land and built giant luxury resorts along the waterfront. But there’s no nostalgia, just a steely, hard-boiled sensibility and stark acceptance of humanity’s failings:
And then it was back to the shop or down to the beach, with a pocketful of Hound Adam’s dope and an eye out for the girls, down in the hot sand and maybe a noseful of coke, because he had discovered where Hound Adams found the energy to party all night and surf all day.

... After that night with the redhead, he had tried not to fuck them, just to recruit them for the parties, sad stupid little girls. And he had laughed at himself for ever thinking there was more to it, something magical, even, and he both wished back the magic and sneered at himself for ever having believed it there.
No matter how many times I read that passage, it still sends a chill down my spine.

Because Nunn understood the Faustian bargain of the endless summer.

And he nailed it.


John said...

She missed DAWN PATROL by Don Winslow? Shame.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Oh, there are many other books besides Dawn Patrol as well, but this wasn't really supposed to be an exhaustive accounting.


Austin Carr said...

The line about developing Huntington Beach (where I used to surf "the cliffs") made me think about a solution to the nation's debt crisis: how about the U.S. sells its Camp Pendleton Marine Base (0ver 20 miles of pristine southern California beach) for development? The Treasury would reap hundreds of billions. I'm sending Obama a memo.

Craig said...

It was an entertaining piece, and I enjoyed it -- but I have to admit when I saw the headline I was expecting some reference to Don Winslow. His surfer noir books include not just "Dawn Patrol" but also "The Gentlemen's Hour" and "The Winter of Frankie Machine."

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Great post, thanks. That quote--"and he both wished back the magic and sneered at himself for ever having believed it there."-captures his noir angst.

Nunn received a significant amount of praise--from Elmore Leonard, Jim Harrison, Bill Barich, and many others--and he deserved it.

Occasionally Nunn wrote in literary metaphor. There is a scene in POMONA QUEEN where a "student of New Testament theology" makes a habit of climbing high in the branches of a sycamore. Another man, a materialistic engineer, wants to see him commit suicide and keeps yelling at him to do so, "Jump, you pussy."

Nunn's prose turns poetic.

"Faith as the eschatological moment. The words drifted down among the branches, like dying leaves."

"Jump, you pussy."

"It does not belong to the man who is walking, the voice replied, even to direct his own step..."

"He's not climbing back down this time, the engineer said. I'm going to see to it he jumps. It's for his own good. The engineer pulled a wrist rocket from the leather satchel at his side, placed a marble in it, and fired it into the branches of the tree."

"For Christ's sake, the voice came down.

"Christ has been a long time gone, the engineer said."

"Flannery O'Conner," the voice said. Christ among the trees."

The theology student has written a published paper entitled, "The Theology of Hope," espousing "the notion that in a world where men could no longer count on proving anything as unlikely as the existence of a god interested in their affairs, one could at least hope for such a thing, that this hope might in fact inform one's life, that it might make a difference."


Nunn gets compared to Chandler and Cain, but scenes like that one certainly make the comparison to Flannery O'Connor more apt.

Denise Hamilton said...

Hi Everyone,

I am a big fan of Don Winslow, but I was riffing off classic and 'historical' fiction, so focused on 20th century works.

We could certainly do Surf Noir Part II and include Nun's later works, especially Tijuana Straits and The Dogs of Winter, as well as Dawn Patrol and Gentlemen's Agreement and many more.