Sinister undercurrents lie everywhere, even in Southern California’s seemingly wholesome world of surfing
Yes, Southern California is a postcard-perfect paradise filled with sun-bronzed bikini girls and tautly muscled surfers riding waves. We Angelenos are longtime civic boosters, and our Dream Factory has spread the Surfing USA lifestyle around the globe.
But there’s 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 cancers and wondering when the endless summer turned to ash. As a writer of crime fiction, I admit I see the world through a noir lens. I may be a bona fide native of Los Angeles, but I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with its sugar-white sands, swaying palms and cold blue Pacific.
Turns out the fascinating light-dark duality of our coastal playground is inspiring. My latest novel, Damage Control, pivots on something awful that happens to some teenagers at a beach party one night and still haunts them some 15 years later. And I’m in good company.
Since the 1930s, the crime writers of Los Angeles have understood the atavistic pull of the tides and explored its metaphoric possibilities. 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 place of drowned dreams.
Who can forget McCoy’s slender 1935 novella, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which turns the Santa Monica Pier amusement park into a charnel house where impoverished, desperate people force their malnourished bodies to keep moving through tortured weeks in a Depression-era dance marathon. With one stroke, McCoy transforms a place of games, carousel rides and childish wonder into hell on earth.
There is nothing sexy and aspirational about the L.A. beaches depicted in mid-20th-century crime novels. They were usually cold and blanketed with fog, with dead bodies washing up regularly on the tide. Pedophiles lurked in shotgun shacks overlooking decrepit Venice canals. The damp air bred fatal coughs. Oil derricks stained the white sand black, and sea mist corroded more than metal.
Leigh Brackett’s 1944 novel, No Good from a Corpse, unfolds during World War II, when the coast is a “military dim-out zone.” The sea is depicted “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 celebrities now live in multimillion-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.”
Who can forget McCoy’s slender 1935 novella, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which turns the Santa Monica Pier amusement park into a charnel house...With one stroke, McCoy transforms a place of games, carousel rides and childish wonder into hell on earth.
In 1947, Dorothy B. Hughes wrote an undersung masterpiece called In a Lonely Place, in which the beach becomes a killing field. The novel is narrated by a male serial killer who hunts victims along the California Incline, the road leading down to Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue: “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 foghorn 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 by the sea but a chilling clue to murder.
Coastal cities in L.A.’s hard-boiled noir world also tended to be places of casual brutality and corrupt police. Consider Chan-dler’s mythical Bay City or Brackett’s Surfside, the latter in the 1944 story “I Feel Bad Killing You” (Reprinted in my Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics).
Chandler found beauty and poetry in many hidden corners of his adopted city—from Central Avenue nightclubs to Pasadena orange groves—but in The Little Sister, Philip Marlowe can’t muster up much enthusiasm for our fabled coast: “I drove on to the Oxnard cutoff and turned back along the ocean. The big eight-wheelers and sixteen-wheelers were streaming north, all hung over with orange lights. On the right, the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California ocean. California, the department-store state.” For Chandler, the beach was merely a stepping-stone to the real glamour floating several miles out in the Pacific—the offshore gambling boats.
Ross Macdonald, who lived much of his life in Santa Barbara, also used the coast as a backdrop for murder and unsavory doings. In The Zebra-Striped Hearse of 1962, PI Lew Archer is hired by a wealthy family to dig up dirt on their prospective son-in-law. In one scene, Archer parks above Zuma Beach and hikes down a dark path to question teen surfers: “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.”
The surfers’ rejection of society makes Archer uneasy for reasons he can’t articulate, but they pre-sage the near future when hippie youth culture would overthrow the established order. By the mid 1960s, the Beach Boys were crooning about “California Girls” and mythologizing the beach lifestyle for a new generation. But delve into the melodies and lyrics of Pet Sounds, and you’ll sense a profound unease, a signal flare that not all was well in Paradise—not to mention in Brian Wilson’s head.
As usual, the region’s crime writers pierced straight through the sweet harmonies, Hawaiian shirts and steel guitars. Deep into the 1970s, they voiced doubts about the Southern California coast via characters who reflected the times. Joseph Hansen created insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter, a gay PI. His 1976 short story “Surf” (also reprinted in Los Angeles Noir 2) describes a Marina del Rey “where little white boats waited row on row like children’s coffins in the rain.”
Hansen’s Venice is filled with “seedy shops and scabby apartment buildings” and the Billy Budd, the gay bar on Ocean Front Walk where a victim picks up a trick. Farther up the coast, a new apartment complex on a sea cliff in the fictional town of “Surf” crumbles into the sea.
With almost prurient detail, Hansen describes the rust, peeling varnish, corrosion and bare stucco that reveals tarpaper and chicken-wire underneath. It’s an apt metaphor for the creeping moral rot these noir authors see lying just below the glitzy polished surface of L.A. itself.
Tapping the Source is not only a stellar crime novel but a meticulous anthropological account of the layered subcultures in a world that would soon vanish—like so much of Southern California’s colorful past.
But my favorite surf-noir novel of the late 20th century is Kem Nunn’s magnificent Tapping the Source, a finalist for the 1984 National Book Award for First Work of Fiction. Set in the once sleepy, rustic coastal town of Huntington Beach, Source is not only a stellar crime novel but a meticulous anthropological ccount of the layered subcultures in a world that would soon vanish—like so much of Southern California’s colorful past.
Nunn shows us the bikers and surfers, runaways and burnouts and bleary denizens eking out their days amid used-record shops, vintage-clothing stores, pool halls, run-down motels with cracked cement pools, tract homes, the old wooden pier and the Golden Bear night-club, where you could hear blues, country, jazz and punk for a $5 cover.
Within 10 years, most of this world would cease to exist, bulldozed away as developers bought up the coastal land and built resorts along the waterfront. Still, there’s no nostalgia in Nunn’s writing, just a steely sensibility and stark acceptance of humanity’s failings: “And then it was back to the shop or down to the beach, with a pocket-ful of Hound Adams’ 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...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.”
Let’s end on a state of semi-grace, shall we? In 2008, Don Winslow gets to have it both ways in The Dawn Patrol, about a group of friends who rise before the sun each morning to surf Pacific Beach in San Diego. It’s both a bonding ritual and therapy, especially for Boone Daniels, an ex-cop haunted by the murder of a little girl.
Later, the book’s title also evokes a darker phenomenon, and Daniels laments his hometown’s growing seediness: “The family tourism trade is starting to move...leaving PB to the young and single, to the boozehounds and the gangbangers, and it’s all too bad.” But it’s his hometown, and Daniels navigates it like he does that cold blue Pacific: by never turning his back on the waves. “What the ocean wants, it takes,” one character muses.
And in surf noir, sometimes the ocean gets a little help.
This article is adapted from Hamilton’s contribution to the mystery-writer collaborative blog the Rap Sheet.
DENISE HAMILTON, whose novels have been short-listed for Edgar and Willa Cather awards, edited the Edgar-winning anthologies Los Angeles Noir. She is also this magazine’s perfume columnist. Visit her at denisehamilton.com.