‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.’

August 5, 2018 at 7:42 pm (California, True crime)

  I wasn’t planning to read this book. In fact, I was definitely planning NOT to read this book.

But I read it anyway. I finished it yesterday and have thought of little else ever since. The Golden State Killer – that moniker was bestowed upon him by Michelle McNamara – was an incredibly evil man.

After committing a hundred deliberately messy thefts, he was  dubbed the Visalia Ransacker.   He then embarked on a series of cruel and sadistic sexual assaults in the Sacramento area. Wikipedia estimates the known total of these to be fifty-one. This aggregation of atrocities resulted in his being called the East Area Rapist, or EAR. But there was worse to come.

The attacker wanted “justification” for killing, the psychiatrist said, and it was only time before he found it.

[“Salem man recalls obsessive search for the Golden State Killer,’ in The Statesman Journal]

Twelve murders followed. Twelve known murders, that is. The acronym was expanded to reflect this grim new reality. EAR became EAR/ONS. (The ONS stands for ‘Original Night Stalker;’ this, to differentiate him from Richard Ramirez, who was first dubbed the Night Stalker by the press in the mid 1980s.)

Unfortunately GSK (the Golden State Killer) was as cunning as he was brutal. He managed to avoid capture even when police appeared to be within a hair’s breadth of apprehending him.

This one man crime spree began in 1976 and ended ten years later. No one knows why it ended. Perhaps now that they have a suspect in custody, they will find out. I rather doubt it. The Wikipedia entry provides most of the known particulars. The sheer length of the list of offenses is gasp-inducing. Reading about even a few of them, one is sickened. Why read about it at all?

Here we come to Michelle McNamara. Michelle grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Notre Dame University. She also possessed an advanced degree in creative writing (MFA), attained at the University of Minnesota.  She maintained a  blog called True Crime Diary.
She was especially intrigued by the case of the Golden State Killer. That interest became, by her own admission, an obsession. The obsession, in turn, became a book project.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a painstaking elucidation of a repugnant series of crimes. Michelle McNamara subjected some exceptionally painful scenarios to an unflinching gaze and then tried to draw from that process some useful knowledge about the perpetrator. Although she was able to synthesize and put in order a great deal of information, she was not able to pinpoint his identity. Small wonder. Several law enforcement entities brought all their resources to bear on this stubborn mystery and did not  get any further than Michelle did. The geography alone is challenging, especially for those of us not familiar with the terrain. The map below gives a general idea of where and when the crimes occurred.

Michelle McNamara might have gotten there, or at least gotten closer, eventually. But fate had decreed otherwise. She passed away in her sleep in April of 2016, leaving behind her husband Patton Oswalt and a seven-year-old daughter.

And the book, only partially written.

Once Patton Oswalt had begun to recover from this sudden, awful blow, he made the finishing of Michelle’s book a top priority. Working together, investigative journalist Billy Jensen and crime writer Paul Haynes saw the project through to completion.

The individual accused of the Golden State Killer crimes is Joseph James DeAngelo. He is 72 years old, a Vietnam veteran and a former police officer. At the time of his arrest, he was living in Citrus Heights, not far from the scene of several of his many depredations.

To my eyes, DeAngelo’s visage is frightful to behold. Some photos of the man when young have appeared online; they show him as more or less agreeable looking, in an average sort of way. I choose not to place any of those images here. Instead, I’d like to recall a novel by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of one man’s descent into depravity. In a portrait painted in his youth, Dorian Gray is handsome and appealing, even alluring. His face is smooth and unmarked. In life, it stays that way, even as his his actions become more and more cruel and unforgivable. But the portrait, hidden away in an attic room, tells the real story. And of course, this state of affairs cannot persist indefinitely…

Another classic work of fiction this subject has brought to mind is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Michelle McNamara was an excellent writer; her  style was ideally suited to the subject matter. To wit:

Most violent criminals smash through life like human sledgehammers. They have fists for hands and can’t plan beyond their sightlines. They’re caught easily. They talk too much. They return to the scene of the crime, as conspicuous as tin cans on a bumper. But every so often a blue moon surfaces. A snow leopard slinks by.

I love her use of figurative language and  short, punchy sentences. Stylistically it’s like the nonfiction equivalent of noir mystery fiction.

Here’s another passage, with longer sentences, equally effective. It concerns the very crucial question of whether these crimes could be linked to the same perpetrator:

A forensic match between the cases didn’t exist but a feeling did, a sense that a single mind was at work, someone who didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.

This excerpt brought to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd:”

“The old man,” I said at length, “is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.

Illustration by NC Mallory of E.A. Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.”

 

From the blog Madness and Insight

Paul Holes is the cold case investigator who worked with Michelle, up until her death, on the Golden State Killer case. He had  this to say about the experience:

“The ability to learn the case, have insights that many do not have the aptitude for, the persistence, and the fun and engaging personality all wrapped up in one person was amazing. I know she was the only person who could have accomplished what she did in this case starting out as an outsider and  becoming one of us over time. I think this private/public partnership was truly unique in a criminal investigation. Michelle was perfect for it.”

So yes, this was a tough book to get through but at the same time I couldn’t stop reading it. I’m glad all of these facts have been read into the record. The victims and their families deserve to have their ordeals known and acknowledged. The fight for justice has, after all, been very much waged on their behalf. And those criminalists and officers of the law and of the court who have been in the trenches, in some cases for years – Detective Paul Holes, Sergeant Larry Crompton, Detective Richard Shelby, forensic scientist Mary Hong, and numerous others – are owed an enormous debt of gratitude.

Here is Paul Holes on how DNA was used to solve this case::

These words by Elizabeth Bruenig, appearing in today’s Washington Post, are part of a passionate brief opposing the death penalty. Wherever you stand on that issue, I believe that her thoughts on the most basic aspects of human nature are eloquently expressed here; as such they are, I think, a good way to conclude this post:

In the world we encounter evil. Our impulse is to destroy it. But here in the world, good and evil are hopelessly entwined; you contain evil, bring it to account, heal injuries and make restitution for wrongs — but it is impossible to finally destroy all evil without also taking the good with it. This is because good and evil are tangled in the hearts of human beings and cannot be sorted out in this life. And since the goodness in us — the humanity — is worth preserving, we ought not inflict death as a punishment, but rather cling to life, even unto the very last moment of hope.

Michelle Eileen McNamara: April 14,1970-April 21, 2016

 

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The Nature of California

November 13, 2017 at 9:45 pm (Art, California, Family)

The bark of the Madrone Tree is reddish in color. When you handle it, it feels like some sort of heavy fabric, pliable and singularly lacking in the expected brittleness.

Bet you didn’t know that…

Neither did I. But this I learned and more, while walking and hiking in the woods and forests of the Bay Area, more specifically the Peninsular region of Northern California. The photo above was taken in Huddart Park in Woodside. We hiked the Bay Tree Trail.   Being enveloped by these woods was delicious. Most of the time, we were the only ones there. The words that kept recurring to me were: ‘This is the forest primeval….’

From Bay Trees such as these, we get the leaves of culinary fame. Growing in profusion along the eponymous trail,  they gave their scent to the air around us.

I’m a great lover of ferns; they are so primordial. They were plentiful along this trail.

And then. of course,  there are the majestic redwoods….

My younger brother, who loves and savors the nature of California

We went for a walk in a place called Hidden Villa. Nestled in a nook of Los Altos Hills – when they say ‘Hidden,’ they mean Hidden!’ – this is a nature preserve with a mission, to wit:

Hidden Villa is a nonprofit educational organization that uses its organic farm, wilderness, and community to teach and provide opportunities to learn about the environment and social justice.

From the Hidden Villa website

At Hidden Villa, we encountered a lush growth of trees and shrubs, a modest number of sheep, goats, cows, horses – oh, and plenty of children on school outings. All added to the magic of the afternoon.

We even came across a brook that was actually babbling! This was significant, as many dry creek beds were pointed out to us in the course of this visit. In a dry land, that sound is magical.

Hidden Villa was established by Frank and Josephine Duveneck.   The Duvenecks come across as entirely admirable people, but something else was going on for me as well. ‘Duveneck’ is an unusual name, and as soon as I saw it on the information brochure, I recognized it as a name I’d seen before – and recently, too.

Of late, I’ve been reading quite  a bit about American artists of the late nineteenth century, and the early part of the twentieth. The father of Frank Duveneck, husband of Josephine pictured above, was also (confusingly) named Frank. Frank the elder was a painter of some repute. He was married to Elizabeth  Boott, herself a painter as well. Elizabeth Boott and her father Francis were good friends of the novelist Henry James (someone I am always reading, and reading about).

All of this was revealed to me in the Wikipedia entry for Frank Duveneck. (I had simply googled ‘Duveneck.’) Click on the name of the son – Frank Boott Duveneck – and you’re taken straight to the entry for Hidden Villa.

In 1886, Lizzie Boott gave birth to a son Frank; she died of pneumonia in 1888, leaving behind her small son and a devastated husband.

Apple Tree Branches, by Elizabeth Boott

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Boott, by Frank Duveneck

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Linden Tree Books in Los Altos specializes in Children’s books. In this era of disappearing bookstores, it was a pleasure to spend time there.

When I mentioned that I’d like a book for my four-year-old grandson, a lover of cars and other means of transportation, one of the sales associates suggested this:

My sister-in-law favored this:

And I simply coundn’t leave without The Water Hole by Graeme Base, a truly amazing illustrator:

This shop also carries a small but carefully chosen selection of books for adults. Luckily, the marvelous News of the World was there. Handing it to my sister-in-law I exclaimed “You have to read this!” Naturally it made the cut.

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My lucky brother and sister-in-law live amidst great beauty. In their yard, a lemon tree flourishes:

In the yard also is a sign of the times, alas….

Finally, in the kitchen of their lovely home, my sister-in-law, a gifted and enthusiastic cook, whipped up one heck of a moussaka!

Yours Truly helped as best I could. This assistance mostly consisted of measuring out spices and other foodstuffs, stirring the bechamel sauce, and struggling with recalcitrant containers:

When finally assembled, the dish was delicious!
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On our final night, a harvest moon shone brightly:

Ah California, mi amor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Three Mysteries and a Scandal

March 16, 2017 at 12:01 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books, California, Mystery fiction)

First, the scandal:

If Jeremy Thorpe were a character in a novel of political intrigue, reviewers and readers alike would cry out, “Oh, that’s so over the top!” For an excellent summing up of the intricacy and sheer weirdness of this story, read this write-up in the Guardian.

At the time that I picked this book up, I was in need of something that would hold my interest – with little or no effort on my part –  from first to last. A Very English Scandal – sometimes sordid but never dull –  proved to be just the ticket.

Jeremy Thorpe: A politician to his marrow (and several other things, besides)

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Now, the mysteries:
  In his informative and entertaining Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, Barry Forshaw describes Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target as “…vintage MacDonald and one of the best post-Chandler private eye novels, with a palpable sense of evil.”

So that naturally sent me back to one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. The Moving Target was one of the few Lew Archer novels I’d never read. Published in 1949, it’s the first in the series. I thought it might be too obviously a journeyman effort. As I began reading, I thought my fears were  confirmed. He’s toiling too much, I thought, in the dark, dark shade of Raymond Chandler.

And yet, and yet…as the narrative developed, the prose took flight, out from behind the Chandler shadow and into the brilliant sun of southern California:

The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.

There is an element of bitterness, even at times self-loathing, that emerges from time to time in the character of Lew Archer. We don’t know where it comes from; we’re told very little, if anything, about his background and personal life. I would have liked to know more. I was in a state of heightened intrigue as I read this novel, and the others. I’ve always wanted him to fall in love, but the women that he meets in the course of his investigations are either unworthy of him or unavailable, for one reason or another.

The Moving Target has its moments, but I think for those new to the oeuvre, it can be safely passed over in favor of later works, in particular The Doomsters, The Far Side of the Dollar, The Galton Case, The Underground Man, The Chill, and of course, The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Then, of course, you can do as I’ve done and  go back and read them all.

‘Ross MacDonald at 100,’http://www.independent.com/news/2015/nov/19/ross-macdonald-100/ from the Santa Barbara Independent on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 1915

Sue Grafton on Ross MacDonald:

If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.

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This next is going to be a very short review of a very long book – well, maybe not very long, but in my view, rather longer than it needed to be. In regard to my current reading life, the chief virtue of The Grave Tattoo (2006) is its setting in the Lake District, an area of preternatural beauty in the far north of England. God willing, and I fervently hope that He will be, we are set to go there in July, and to York as well.

This trip comes accompanied by a marvelous reading list. Those of us who love to travel and love to read know well that combining these two activities is one of life’s great pleasures. (Thanks are due for the trip’s literary component to Kathy of British Mystery Trips.)

The plot of Val McDermid’s novel concerns the doings of a Wordsworth scholar, a forensic anthropologist, a dealer in rare documents, a precocious and endangered adolescent girl, various law enforcement personnel, and others. It’s a densely woven narrative. At  the outset, we are treated to a lengthy disquisition on the life and mystery surrounding Fletcher Christian, of all people. I almost gave up at that point, but I persevered, and actually I am glad that I did. Val McDermid has woven rather a fabulous tapestry here – if you can stick with it.  And once the Fletcher Christian connection becomes clear, we’re treated to a very intriguing historical mystery. And I’m grateful to McDermid for her depiction of this special landscape:

[River] loved the place names too, with their echoes of another wave of invaders. The Vikings had left their mark on the places they occupied with suffixes–Ireby, Branthwaite, Whitrigg. And there were other wonderful names whose origins she knew nothing of–Blennerhasset, Dubwath and Bewaldeth. Driving from Carlisle to Keswick wasn’t just pretty, it was poetry in motion.

I have to say, though, that so far the most wonderful discovery gleaned from that reading list is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

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Peter Turnbull writes like himself and nobody else.

George Hennessy knocked reverentially on the blue-and-green painted door of the modest bungalow on the outskirts of Fridaythorpe. He had never been to the village and found the name as pleasing as the appearance. “Thorpe” he knew to be an ancient Norse word for settlement but ‘Friday’ was unexplained. There was, he thought, probably a interesting story to the name.

(If you’re wondering whether there actually is such a place as Fridaythorpe – there is.)

Novels comprising the Hennessy and Yellich series used to arrive fairly regularly each year, Gift Wrapped having been the entry for 2013. When none arrived in 2014 or 2015 I became concerned…Was one of my favorite series now discontinued? Ergo, I was especially pleased to greet the appearance of 2016’s A Dreadful Past.

Crime solving is very much a group effort in these novels; George Hennessy’s team is comprised of a fairly stable cast of characters – stable both in their regular reappearance and their conduct. Their back stories are reiterated in each new novel. Some readers have complained about this, but I like it very much. It’s a sort of reaffirmation. Somerled Yellich is Hennessy’s second in command. Then there is Carmen Pharoah, a striking woman of West Indian heritage whose husband, also in law enforcement, was killed in action before she joined Hennessy’s team. Rounding out this tight knit group are Detective Constables Reginald Webster and Thompson Ventnor. They work together like the proverbial well oiled machine.

(From time to time, the reader will come upon a  chapter heading like this:

In which a man becomes a woman, a name is mentioned and Carmen Pharoah and Somerled Yellich are severally at home to the most charitable reader.)

The particular case treated in this narrative is a cold one, twenty years of cold having accrued on the case of a triple homicide that nearly wiped out an entire family.. The only surviving member had been away at university at the time of the killings, and it is he, one Noel Middleton, who arrives at the police station with a very telling piece of evidence in the form of a Wedgwood vase. The piece had been stolen from his home at the time of the murders and has now turned up in an antique shop.  While idly browsing some shop windows, Middleton had spotted it and known it for what it was.

I was amazed by what then happened as a result of this singular discovery. Read the book; I think you will be likewise astonished.

As they are set in the great and ancient city of York, these novels are also featured on the reading list for the trip. I was there for a day in 2005, and of course it was not nearly long enough. I was reading a book from this series, though I’m not sure which, at the time of my visit.

The mighty York Minster, second largest (or largest? – depending on whom you ask) Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe

 

Peter Turnbull

(Oh, for a different picture of this seemingly reclusive author…)

 

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‘There was a chilled, numb feeling at the back of his mind, the feeling of one who has had ideals shattered, who has lost confidence in a friend, and a sense of vague, impending disaster hung over him.’ – The D.A. Calls It Murder, by Erle Stanley Gardner

November 19, 2016 at 2:35 pm (Book review, books, California, Mystery fiction)

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The year is 1937. Doug Selby is a recently elected District Attorney in Madison City, a  town of modest size not far from Los Angeles. Although he’s untested, he’s very keen. A mysterious death in a downtown hotel tests his mettle in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen.

The D.A. Calls It Murder is an excellent yarn, well told and bristling with the kind of snappy dialog that characterizes crime fiction of that era. More than that, it was, at least for this reader, an experience in time travel. We find ourselves in a world where telephones are not always available when and where needed, and sending telegrams is often easier – and cheaper –  than making long distance calls  The idiosyncrasies of typewriters can  provide crucial evidence in a murder case, as can laundry marks found on the victims clothing, including his starched collars.

I became intrigued with this brief series after reading an article in the Fall 2016 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine. In “Erle Stanley Gardner…for the Prosecution?” author Michael Mallory provides a number of useful insights on the Selby novels:

Clever plotting was always among Gardner’s strongest skills, and the plots for the Selby books are complex, ingenious, and follow a distinct pattern in which one story thread emanates from within Madison City while a second story thread arrives in town like a visitor from the outside world.

This is, in fact, just what happens in The D.A. Calls It Murder. The novel could certainly be describes as plot-driven; nevertheless, I was pleased to encounter several almost lyrical descriptive passages. In fact, the writing as a whole was better than I’d expected it to be:

It was one of those clear, cold nights with a dry cold wind blowing in from the desert. The stars blazed down with steady brilliance. The northeast wind was surprisingly insistent. Selby buttoned his coat, pushed his hands into the deep side pockets and walked with long, swinging strides.

I could not help but be reminded of the famous opening of Raymond Chandler’s 1938 short story “Red Wind”:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Selby is a likeable protagonist; Mallory describes him as “a handsome, pipe-puffing, remarkably even-tempered reformer….” Another character whose presence on the scene I greatly enjoyed is Sylvia Martin, the enterprising reporter and friend – possibly more than friend? – of Selby’s. (She’s rather in the Lois Lane mode.) As the novel’s setting is not far from Hollywood, show business almost inevitably manages to intrude upon the proceedings. The intrusion takes the form of the actress Shirley Arden, a seductive beauty whose connection to the hotel killing is key to unraveling the mystery.

The D.A, Calls It Murder came out as the noir style in crime fiction was in its ascendancy. Dashiell Hammett’s career as a writer was pretty well over (hard to believe), while Raymond Chandler, who’d been churning out stories and articles at a rapid rate, was about to embark on a stellar career as a novelist, starting with 1939’s fully formed masterpiece, The Big Sleep. In this first Doug Selby novel, Gardner does not partake much of that ethos, although the flavor of noir lingo can be detected in certain snatches of dialog. Here, Selby has one of his rare flare-ups of temper directed at actress Shirley Arden’s slippery manager:

“You promised me to have Shirley Arden here  at eight o’clock. I’m already being put on the pan for falling for this Hollywood hooey. I don’t propose to be made the goat.”

Here’s the list of Doug Selby novels:

The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)

The sheer volume of Erle Stanley Gardner’s literary output is truly staggering. Obtaining individual items from this vast oeuvre can be something of a challenge. Here’s what the sole copy of The D.A. Calls It Murder available from Interlibrary Loan looks like:

img_20161119_090946 Rather less than prepossessing, I’m sure you’ll agree. I found myself longing wistfully for something a bit more lively – a bit more like this: the-da-calls-it-murder-1952-illus-frank-mccarthy

Michael Mallory concludes his article thus:

With their amazingly deft plots, lightning pacing, constant twists, and offbeat characters, Erle Stanley Gardner’s D.A. novels deserve to be better known and read.

I agree completely. I’ve already got my request into Interlibrary Loan for The D.A. Holds a Candle.

erle-stanley-gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner 1889-1970

 

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The mysteries of 2015; top choices: contemporary, Part Three

December 27, 2015 at 4:37 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, California, Mystery fiction)

How do I love Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels; let me count the ways…

635652322095155007-mottled-X

1. Breezy, snappy dialogue

2. Brisk pacing

3. Fascinating glimpses of the California hinterland

[At one point in the investigation, Kinsey finds herself driving through the Los Padres National Forest:

To speak of the national “forest” doesn’t nearly convey the reality of the land, which is mountainous and barren, with no trees at all in this portion of the interior.

On either side of the road, I could see wrinkled stretches of uninhabitable hills where the chaparral formed a low, shaggy carpet of dry brown. Spring mightt be whispering along thee contours, but without water there was very little  green. Pockets of wildflowers appeared here and there, but the dominant color palette was muted gray, dull pewter, and dusty beige.

She reflects ruefully “I missed the reassuring fft-fft-fft of water cannons firing tracers out over newly sown fields.” (As I read this, I could see and hear the irrigation system at work – in better days. Ah, California, where nothing ever happens by half measures.)]

4. Kinsey’s cheerfully unreconstructed dining preferences

[Here she is contemplating a meal at an eatery called Sneaky Pete’s:

What loomed large in my mind’s eye was the image of the specialty of the house:  sandwich made with spicy salami and melted pepper jack cheese, topped with a fried egg, the whole of it served on a Kaiser roll that dripped with butter as you ate.

Later, she mentions Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies “on which my mental health is so often dependent.” (I felt the same way about that delicious confection, in my pre-diabetes days…sigh…)]

5. The depiction of Kinsey the professional; i.e. how she handles the intellectual and strategic challenges that come her way as the sole proprietor of Millhone Investigations

5. Kinsey’s 89-year-old fit-as-a-fiddle landlord Henry Pitts. In X, Henry’s trying to figure out how to reduce his water usage in advance of mandatory rationing. Possibly he goes a bit overboard…

6. The voice of Kinsey herself. I don’t know of another author who makes better use of first person narration. I feel as though I’m being regaled by a world class raconteur!

6. A certain lightheartedness that expresses itself through irreverence and humor

[Here, Kinsey is making an observation re an opulent hotel room in which she unexpectedly finds herself:

This was a far cry from my usual accommodations, which might best be described as the sort of place where protective footwear is advisable when crossing the room.

Due to the impromptu nature of this overnight stay, Kinsey has to wash out her underwear in the bathroom sink. Her comment on this prosaic necessity: “I can just about promise you Philip Marlowe was never as dainty as I.”]

7. An underlying steadiness and seriousness of purpose – in order to see justice served, the job must be done, and done right
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This is the first Kinsey Millhone novel I’ve read in quite some time. When I picked it up a few weeks ago, I was in need of a book that would take me completely out of myself. X was just the ticket.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’d become somewhat dismissive about this series. Oh well, another letter of the alphabet, do I actually care… Well, shame on me! Sue Grafton is a master craftsman at the top of her game. X was  terrific – read it.

Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton

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A California sojourn; in which, among other entertainments, a horse tries to eat my finger and and my sister-in-law takes me to prison for my birthday

May 25, 2015 at 2:13 am (California, Family)

Middle of May, 2015.

Ah, Northern California, land of plenty:

Brains, talent, ambition, money, mountains, beaches, majestic trees, spacious vistas, a turbulent and fascinating history.

Yes- a surfeit of everything. Except

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Upon arrival, one expects to be gazing upon an utterly parched landscape. This was not the case, as the view from the kitchen window of my brother and sister-in-law’s house attests:

 

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It is along the verges of the roads that one sees the tell tale signs. Oh – and we are enjoined to use the term “golden” to describe the color – not “brown.”

Dead almond trees in a field of gold. Firebaugh, California. Photo credit: Randi Lynn Beach

Dead almond trees in a field of gold. Firebaugh, California. Photo credit: Randi Lynn Beach

It was surprisingly cold in California this time: temps in the fifties and very windy. But for the most part, the sun shone down on us. After the relentless drear of the East Coast, it was a welcome change.

Donna, my sister-in-law, loves to walk, as do I. Her neighborhood is ideal for this purpose, especially as there is a delightful destination within easy walking distance: the Westwind Community Barn.

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As Donna and I share a love of horses, we entered the gated pasture by a side entrance in order to feed to the animals grazing there some cut up veggies. Donna, the soul of gentleness and kindness,  was delighted that they seemed to like the celery she’d brought. As for me, I was feeding one of them a carrot when he decided that my finger would also make a delightful snack as well. Fortunately, this misapprehension by my new equine acquaintance resulted in a lightly bruised digit and nothing more.

To show there was no hard feeling, I stroked his glossy neck and leaned my head against his warm body.

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The sightseeing highlight was our trip to Alcatraz, aka “The Rock.” (It’s reached via ferry from the Embarcadero in San Francisco.) This fabled island prison once housed the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger, the famous Bird Man of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, and many others of lesser fame but equal infamy.

Alcatrazinmates

It would have been a horribly grim place to be incarcerated, with the glittering lights of San Francisco always in view –  a mere one and a half miles distant, but utterly unreachable due to the icy cold waters of the Bay. Accommodations in the prison itself were exceedingly basic. Privacy was almost nonexistent. Surroundings were profoundly ugly. Secure incarceration, not rehabilitation, was the mission of the institution. Even the most basic privileges had to be earned.

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Dining area and kitchen. All knives had to be accounted for, for obvious reasons.

Dining area and kitchen. All knives had to be accounted for, for obvious reasons.


We obtained the Cellhouse Audio Tour, which was terrific – very evocative and beautifully done. Portions were narrated by former guards at the facility:

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We heard the stories of various escape attempts. The most famous involved two brothers, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin, and a third man, Frank Lee Morris. Their meticulous advanced planning included dummy  heads fabricated from soap, concrete powder and hair, materials obtained from the prison barber  shop. jbmjcfbx2vvesyy4ynyb  Positioned strategically in the prisoners’ respective  beds, these constructions gave guards the impression that the inmates were sleeping peacefully, whereas in reality they were in the process of effecting their escape. frank morris cell

When the prisoners could not be awakened, a guard tapped one of the heads, which promptly rolled onto  the floor. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that moment!) By the time the entire force on the island was mobilized for the search, the Anglin brothers and Morris were off the island. But what then became of them? That question remains unanswered. There are several theories, some of which posit their survival. But all we know for certain at this time is that they were never seen or heard from again.

Escape from Alcatraz DVD R1  The Film Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood is based on this incident. (I’ve not yet seen the movie.)

An oddly beautifu; view from "the Rock." It almost looks a bit like Italy.

An oddly Italianate view from Alcatraz Island across the Bay

Before we left “the Rock,” we visited the gift shop. Museum shops are among my favorite places to browse, and this one was particular well set up for that purpose. First, I bought a tee shirt to wear to exercise class. A-TAZTIME-2

Then I noticed that in another part of the store, a book signing was taking place. The book was Murders on Alcatraz, and the author was George DeVincenzi, pictured above as one of the narrators of the audio tour. I purchased the book and had an enjoyable chat with Mr. DeVincenzi. As I was walking away with my newly signed volume, he called after me: “I was involved in the first two murders!” Alcatrazm

When I had returned home, I googled  Mr. DeVincenzi. I was especially curious as to how old he was. By my calculation, he is now 87 or 88! All I can say is, you’d never know it.

""

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Back home all was quiet and peaceful. Time spent with Donna and Richard is always an enriching experience.

One of the many pleasures of being in this beautiful home was provided by the dainty visitors to the hummingbird feeder affixed to the kitchen window:

"                               "

Thursday May 14 was my birthday. On that day, nature staged a rare display.

First, the clouds gathered:

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Then the sky turned an ominous and uniform dark gray:

 

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And then, with the maximum amount of drama, the heavens opened up:

When had they last experiences a downpour like that? Richard and Donna agreed that it was probably back in February.

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Ron, myself, and Donna at Alcatraz

Ron, myself, and Donna at Alcatraz

 

 

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Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

March 11, 2015 at 11:49 am (Book review, books, California, True crime)

A1mftPyMp+L._SL1500_ Here’s how Jill Leovy characterizes an effective officer of the law:

A great cop–or a great detective–needed to be smart and quick, but not necessarily bookish or terribly analytical. A good memory, a talent for improvisation, a keen interest in people, and a buoyancy of spirit–one had to like “capering”–ensured that the hyperactive flourished in a job that left others wilting with stress.

Leovy then states: “Wally Tennelle had all these traits.” Detective Wally Tennelle and his family are at the center of this narrative.

Leovy describes in detail the extraordinary difficulties involved in policing South Los Angeles. Making cases that stick is a process that has its own set of problems, mainly having to do with witnesses who are too terrified to testify in open court.

The tribulations experienced by those who work for the Los Angeles Police Department are rendered vividly in this narrative. There is the inevitable faceless, infuriating bureaucracy. There are cops who operate on some version of automatic pilot.

There are also individuals who operate at the very highest levels of sensitivity, empathy, and most of all, devotion to duty. And there are the counterparts of these, people who are forced to endure the most searing pain there is: loss of a loved one. When that loved one is a child, the pain seems well nigh insurmountable.

I’ve been reading a great deal of true crime lately, but Ghettoside is different. Jill Leovy takes you to a place so dark, so seemingly hopeless, that you can think of nothing but how to escape, the sooner the better.

And yet…

By forcing you to look directly again and again at the  injustice and violence and the inevitable resultant agony, the reader arrives finally at the still, anguished center of this harrowing narrative. It is impossible not to. And once having come to that place, there is no going back.

There are stories of gang members shooting individuals they’ve erroneously thought to be members of rival gangs. These ‘mistakes’ happen because of a particular hat being worn, or the color of a bandana sticking out of a pocket.

You want more than anything to see these murder cases followed through until justice is done. You wish to thank people like Detective John Scaggs and his fellow cadre of officers for their unwavering dedication in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles (some of which emanate from their own police department).

Most of all, you wish you could somehow assuage the pain of those who have suffered the worst of all losses. Leovy tells story after story about vicious, senseless, utterly unjustifiable murders, and the suffering they cause family members, who are left trying to cope with the loss for weeks and months and years afterwards, probably forever.

Choked silence, accompanied by that flat gaze one police chaplain called “homicide eyes,” was perhaps the signature response people offered when asked to describe their experiences with violence….

Karen Hamilton, a bookkeeper from Jefferson Park, had still not spoken of her son’s murder seven years after his death.She tried, drawing deep breaths, her hands shaking, but no voice came. Homicide grief may be a kind of living death. Survivors slog on, disfigured by loss and incomprehension.

At the conclusion of  the trial that is the centerpiece of this book, the jury foreman, who was white, had this to say:

“There is a perception that blacks are doing it to blacks, and if I’m white, it doesn’t affect me….” His eyes flashed with sudden anger. “Well, get over it. It does.”

I can’t possibly do Ghettoside justice in this space. Only let me say that it is the most urgently relevant, compassionate, profound, and beautifully written book I have read in a very long time.

Jill Leovy

Jill Leovy

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No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Meditation XVII, John Donne

 

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Going off in a million different directions – but sticking with The Master

September 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm (Book review, books, California, Italy)

If I don’t simply sit down and start writing, I’ll never get back to it. So, here goes:

Ron and I have just returned from California. More specifically, we were in the South Bay Area, aka Silicon Valley as it is now known. I loved it last year, and loved it twice as much this year. It is an utterly magical place. My head is still swimming with visions of seals and sea lions, majestic redwoods, and Stanford’s spectacularly beautiful campus. More to come on this journey, which now seems to me to have been momentous for several reasons.

Meanwhile, I find myself entangled, at least to some degree, in three different book clubs. I’m making it a rule simply to opt out if I really don’t want to read the selection – or if the date’s not good for me – or whatever. The only time I require myself to attend is if I’m involved in presenting. (Big of me, isn’t it?)

And speaking of books, the reading I brought with me had nothing to do with California. Let me provide a bit of background to explain my seemingly eccentric choice of reading matter.

Several weeks ago, I read a review of a book that I knew, beyond question, I wanted to read:  .  I immediately realized that it made no sense to do so, however, without first revisiting  its subject, a novel I read many years ago, in my English major days. And so I obtained a copy of Portrait of a Lady from the library. They carry the Penguin Classics edition, with its arresting cover featuring a detail from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler:  .

I have seen this painting; it hangs in one of my favorite places, the Smithsonian American Art Museum: . Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler – slightly imperious, even more mysterious –  became, in my mind, the image of James’s heroine, Isabel Archer.

I finished Portrait of a Lady last night at 3 AM. Reading it at times felt like a massive undertaking, but the rewards were commensurate with the effort. The pacing is at once stately and urgent, a seemingly impossible narrative coup on the part of the artful Henry James. It keeps the reader glued to the page – at least, it did so with this reader.

Meanwhile, I had almost forgotten how reverent, how brilliant, a great novel can be. Isabel Archer is so very alive for me at this moment.  Another thing I’d forgotten was open-ended nature of the novel’s concluding paragraphs. For Isabel, almost nothing concerning her relations with Gilbert Osmond has been resolved.  Why has she determined, in the teeth of a profound crisis, to embark on a seemingly perverse course of action? What is to become of her?

One of the few things I remembered from my long-ago first reading of the book is Henrietta Stackpole’s ringing declaration, in the novel’s penultimate paragraph: “‘Look here, Mr. Goodwood,…just you wait!'”

One of the many joys of Portrait of a Lady is the strongly evocative nature of  some of the descriptive passages. In this one, Isabel, Henrietta, and several others are exploring Rome:

The  herd of reechoing tourists had departed and most of the solemn places had relapsed into solemnity. The sky was a blaze of blue, and the plash of the fountains in their mossy niches had lost its chill and doubled its music. On the corners of the warm, bright streets one stumbled on bundles of flowers. Our friends had gone one afternoon – it was the third of their stay – to look at the latest excavations in the Forum, these labours having been for some time previous largely extended. They had descended from the modern street to the level of the Sacred Way, along which they wandered with a reverence of step which was not the same on the part of each. Henrietta Stackpole was  struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and the overjangled iron grooves which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun to sink, the air was a golden haze, and the long shadows of broken column and vague pedestal leaned across the field of ruin.

Two thousand year old ruts made by chariot wheels, broken columns casting their shadows courtesy of the brightness of the sun, the intense blue of the sky….I remember it all from my last visit to Rome, more than forty years ago. It came back to me as though it had been yesterday, and the longing to be there along with it. (My journey to Italy three years ago, wonderful as it was, did not include a stop at the Eternal City.)

And as for Henrietta Stackpole: what a pleasure it was, after so many years, once again to spend time on her company! She’s a wonderful, down to earth, straightforward person, utterly immune to the affectations of languid aesthetes like Gilbert Osmond. She is unmistakably a woman of the future, and she is also a fast and immoveable friend to Isabel Archer. The two women have vastly different personalities, yet in the ways and at the moments that matter the most, each is for the other a tower of strength. (The need is invariaby more urgent on Isabel’s side.)

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A pleasant surprise, courtesy of the Washington Post and my friend Ann

April 17, 2012 at 1:09 am (California, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

Today I had lunch with my intellectual buddies.  At one point in our always lively conversation, one of the group, Ann, turned to me and remarked: ” I read your piece in the Post yesterday.” I looked at her in astonishment. My…what? She went on to explain the subject matter, and then the nickel dropped, though I was still amazed: “You mean, they printed it?”

In fact, the reference was to a letter I’d written to the Washington Post about five weeks ago in connection with an article on literary landmarks in Los Angeles that appeared in the March 11 Sunday magazine. I received no acknowledgement from the paper – not so much as an auto-responder – and so I assumed that my missive had fallen into the proverbial bit bucket, never to be seen from that time forth.

I was away this past weekend, and although I did receive yesterday’s paper, I hadn’t had a chance to read it. Hence, my bewilderment at Ann’s comment.

The column in which my letter appears is called, “Your Turn: Reader reactions.” It contains two letters; mine is the second.  Newspapers and magazines always warn you that letters sent to them might be edited, and so it was in this case. Here’s the full text of what I actually wrote (should you be interested):

I very much enjoyed “City of Angles” Bill Thomas (WP Magazine, March 11, 2012). I do wish, though, that Thomas had mentioned Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series. MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and  moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience. Here’s a quote from The Zebra-Striped Hearse:

“The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.”

Your readers might also be interested to know that in 2009, two American mystery writers and a French journalist made a starting discovery:: Some sixteen minutes into Double Indemnity, Raymond Candler makes a brief uncredited appearance. How strange it is that some sixty-five years after the film’s initial release (and after years of intense study of this landmark film noir), the presence of this cameo should first be detected and reported by two unrelated parties in different countries. Follow this link to an article in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jun/05/raymond-chandler-double-indemnity-cameo

Also, the scene in question appears in a YouTube video, at normal speed and in slow motion: http://youtu.be/vN9THMXxndw

Ross MacDonald 1915-1983

Still, all in all, I got a chance to sing the praises of Ross MacDonald, a writer whose work I deeply admire.

I also took the opportunity to present my own take on literary Los  Angeles in a post entitled Los Angeles in literature.

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Los Angeles in literature

March 12, 2012 at 12:54 am (books, California, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

Today’s Washington Post Magazine contains an enjoyable feature on the literary landmarks of Los Angeles. Writer Bill Thomas first and foremost makes a point of how changeable the landscape of the “City of Angles” actually is. There is a restaurant, however, that is peopled with the ghosts of great screenwriters of the past. The Musso and Frank Grill, est. 1919, in its day played host to the likes of William Faulkner, Nathanael West, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, James M Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and Ernest Hemingway. 

Says manager Mark Echeverria: “In the 1930s, and ’40s, the movie studios hired a lot of novelists to come out to Hollywood and write screenplays. Of course, the studios would hack their work to pieces. So, they’d walk over here to get drunk and vent.”

Nathanael West – born Nathan Weinstein in New York City – has long fascinated me. I read Miss Lonelyhearts in college. Thomas’s article has served to remind me that I need to read The Day of the Locust, considered by many to be West’s masterpiece and one of the genuinely great novels of Hollywood.   (West’s oeuvre, though celebrated, is slight in length.  In 1940, while on his way to Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral, he ran a stop sign and was killed along with his wife in the ensuing crack-up. He was 37 years old.)

Although much of the landscape of mid-twentieth century Los Angeles has been altered, the house used as the dwelling place of femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger, last name “Dietrichson” in the film version of Double Indemnity, still stands. Bill Thomas went to see it:

The colorful Spanish colonial house on Quebec Drive that was used in the movie doesn’t look nearly as ominous as it did in black-and-white, or grab your attention like the one Cain introduces in the first paragraph of the book. Insurance salesman Walter Huff (“Neff” in the movie), whose affair with a customer’s wife leads to homicide, tells the story in the form of a confession: “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers.”

  Last September, the Usual Suspects enjoyed a vigorous and enlightening discussion of James M Cain’s classic noir novel. Several of us also watched the film. While researching my blog post on that discussion, I came across a rather astonishing fact. Three years ago, in 2009, two American mystery writers and a French journalist discovered that  some sixteen minutes into the film Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler makes a brief uncredited appearance. How strange it is that some sixty-five years after the film’s initial release (and after years of intensive study of this landmark in the film noir canon), the presence of this cameo should first be detected and reported by two unrelated parties in different countries. The Guardian ran a piece on this remarkable find. And here’s the actual scene, rendered in both real time, slow motion, and even slower motion. (The music is Miklos Rozsa‘s chilling score):

Probably the most notorious actual crime that occurred in Los Angeles in this postwar period is the 1947 murder of  Elizabeth Short. Almost invariably referred to as the “Black Dahlia” murder, this case has intrigued novelists, filmmakers, and investigative journalists for decades. Bill Thomas provides the context:

A wave of violent crime hit L.A. in the late 1940s. Growing prosperity, a larger population and an influx of ex-GIs exposed to the brutality of war were all blamed at the time for the upsurge in lawlessness. Whatever the cause, there’s nothing left to remind anyone what happened here. The vacant lot on South Norton Avenue where Short’s body was found has been developed into part of a quiet palm-treed subdivision of modest ranch-style homes with manicured lawns, not what you’d associate with a grisly homicide.

    James Ellroy, author of a highly praised novel based on this crime, knows from personal experience about the lawlessness of the Los Angeles of his youth: his mother, a nurse, was murdered in 1958. Just as with Elizabeth Short, the killer of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy has never been found.

Ellroy writes about this tragedy and how it affected his life in My Dark Places, a memoir that is both hard hitting and very poignant.

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  Two authors not covered by Bill Thomas are worthy of mention here. The first is John McPhee. His piece “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” originally appeared in The New Yorker Magazine  and was subsequently included in the collection The Control of Nature. There’s more than a hint of irony in that title. Controlling nature is exactly  what the denizens of Shields Canyon in Greater Los Angeles thought they’d succeeded in doing. The Genofile family were among those who dwelled in this typically paradisiacal residential community in southern California.

One night, after there had been torrential rain in Shield Canyon, Jackie and Bob Genofile heard a loud noise, which was followed by silence. They and their two teen-aged children looked out a rear window of their single story house. Jackie describes what they saw: “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.” What follows is one of the most terrifying descriptions of a natural disaster – or perhaps a better term would be natural/man made disaster – that I have ever read. The entire Genofile family came within inches of complete annihilation.

Thar’s just one incident – the first, in this long, mesmerizing essay, a form that has attained near perfection in the masterful hands of John McPhee.

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  Another who I believe ranks high in the pantheon of Southern California writers is Ross MacDonald. Ages ago, my lifelong friend Helene handed me The Zebra Striped Hearse. I was immediately hooked. I read as many of the Lew Archer books as I could get my hands on. I asked Helene what, in her opinion, accounts for the peculiar power of these novels? She replied that they’re like Greek tragedies. The destructive effect of warped family relations have rarely been depicted as so devastating and so inevitable. And for my money, this paradigm – which does indeed seem doomed to play itself out over and over again, with Lew Archer as the Greek chorus –  is nowhere more powerfully bodied forth than in The Zebra Striped Hearse.

Oh – and I love the spare eloquence of MacDonald’s writing:

The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.

Ross MacDonald

Nathanael West

James M Cain

John McPhee

James Ellroy

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