‘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
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:
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.
How do I love Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels; let me count the ways…
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
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.
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
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
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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:
Then the sky turned an ominous and uniform dark gray:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love California. And I love reading about California.
Last June I spent several days visiting family members in the South Bay Area. I stayed in their home in Los Altos Hills, a place I’d never heard of before they moved there last year. I had almost no familiarity with that part of the state. But when I got there, I felt as though I had landed in paradise. The enchantment began on the way back from the airport and became more potent in the ensuing days. It did not lessen when I returned home on the east coast but only grew in retrospect. “Everything is larger than life out there,” a friend recently observed. Exactly.
Once back in Maryland, the need for some California-based reading asserted itself. Although I had been in the northern part of the state, it was Los Angeles I wanted to read about. This is because my recent sojourn had brought vividly to mind a piece entitled “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” by John McPhee Having first appeared in the New Yorker, this remarkable essay was subsequently included in a collection called The Control of Nature.
I read this book when it came out in 1989. “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” has stayed with me since then, largely because of the story with which McPhee begins the piece:
One night in February, some years back, the Genofile family – Bob, Jackie, and their two teenaged children – were awakened by a thunderous crashing sound:
Ordinarily, in their quiet neighborhood, only the creek beside them was likely to make much sound, dropping steeply out of Shields Canyon on its way to the Los Angeles River. The creek, like every component of all the river systems across the city from mountains to ocean, had not been left to nature. Its banks were concrete. Its bed was concrete. When boulders were running there, they sounded like a rolling freight. On a night like this, the boulders should have been running. The creek should have been a torrent. Its unnatural sound was unnaturally absent. There was, and had been, a lot of rain.
There were, then, two ominous sounds: loud noise and silence.
Jackie and the children, Kimberlee and Scott, gazed up the street from a window in Scott’s bedroom, which was located at the back of the single story structure. This is how 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 happened next happened very fast. John McPhee is such a terrific storyteller, and the story he tells here is so harrowing, it beggars belief. Events are extremely compressed, taking just under four pages to relate.
The phenomenon being described is called a debris flow.
Then, of course, there is fire….
Here, McPhee explain the origin and nature of the famed Santa Ana winds, and the effect they have on the city’s mountainous ecosystem:
In the long dry season, and particularly in the fall, air flows southwest toward Los Angeles from the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range. Extremely low in moisture, it comes out of the canyon lands and crosses the Mojave desert. As it drops in altitude, it compresses, becoming even dryer and hotter. It advances in gusts. This is the wind that is sometimes called the foehn. The fire wind. In Los Angeles, it is known as Santa Ana. When chamise and other chaparral plants sense the presence of Santa Ana winds, their level of moisture drops, and they become even more flammable than they were before. The Santa Anas bring what has been described as “instant critical fire weather.”
McPhee quotes Charles Colver of the Forest Service: “‘…moisture evaporates off your eyeballs so fast that you have to keep blinking.'”
I love crime fiction set in the L.A. region. Ross MacDonald is one of my perennial favorites. And I just had a darn good time with Double Indemnity by James M Cain. (The Usual Suspects are discussing this taut little noir gem Tuesday night.) Ron and I just watched the film – yet again, and yet again it was terrific.
In “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” John McPhee introduced me to a rather singular scholar. British by birth, architectural critic Reyner Banham cherished an extravagant love for the City of Angels. He’s the author of a book to which I’ve seen the adjective “seminal” applied more than once: An outfit called Esotouric offers a Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles Bus Tour. And the BBC made a documentary of the same title in 1972. Here’s a short video from that production:
“What seems clear is that his Sierra summer awakened the deepest and most intense passion of his life, a long moment of ecstasy that he would try to remember and relive to the end of his days. His whole body, not his eyes alone, felt the beauty around him. Every sense became intensely alive. He bounded over rocks and up mountains sides, hung over the edge of terrifying precipices, his face drenched in the spray of waterfalls, waded through meadows deep in lilies, laughed at the exuberant antics of grasshoppers and chipmunks, stroked the bark of towering incense cedars and sugar pines, and slept each night on an aromatic mattress of spruce boughs. Each thing he saw or felt seemed joined to the rest in exquisite harmony. ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself,’ he wrote, ‘we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ Nature was all one body, beating with a heart like his own, and more intensely than ever before in his life he felt his own heart b eating in unison. He experienced, in the fullest sense yet, a profound conversion to the religion of nature.
John Muir was a marvelous writer; his biographer, equally so.
In Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard describes Villa Fersen, a deserted estate on the island:
“Inexpressibly romantic in its solitude and decline, it was cared for by a custodial Caprese family who for years intrepidly occupied the kitchen quarters at the landward rear of the building, while the haunted drawing rooms, shedding stucco and gold leaf, teetered ever closer to the limestone brink. The damp garden tended by the housekeeper was ravishing: suitably overgrown, encroached on by a cloud of ferns, creepers, acanthus, agapanthus, amaryllis; shadowed by umbrella pine, and by cypress and ilex; lit from within by massed colours of fuchsia, hortensia, azalea, and all manner of trailing mauves, blues, and purples–wisteria and iris in spring, solanum and ‘stella d’Italia’ in high summer; in autumn, plumabago and belladonna lilies. Geraniums were the size of shrubs, and of every red and coral gradation. The different jasmines flowered there, on walls and trellises, in relays throughout the year.
In September and October, crowds of wild cyclamen, small fragrant flowers of Italian woods, sprang from the crevices of the rock face in which the house is virtually framed….Fersen’s in those years was a garden of mossy textures and dark dense greens, with impasto of luminous flowers: a place of birdsong and long silence; of green lizards and shadowy cats, and decadent Swinburnean beauty.
I read Greene on Capri because I am headed for Naples and the Amalfi Coast next month. As part of the tour, a day trip to Capri is planned. Shirley Hazzard is a writer whose style has posed difficulties for me in the past – I barely got through The Great Fire. But I was enchanted by this slender little memoir detailing the friendship that Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, shared with Graham Greene on that magical island during the postwar years.
Villa Fersen, near and distant:
A potential nightmare in California, a real nightmare in Italy – and a tribute to author Marc Reisner
Here is the post I was working on when I heard about the earthquake in Italy’s Abruzzo region:
I got the idea for this post from an article that appeared in New York Times on February 14. Michael Cooper’s piece on President Obama’s stimulus package, entitled “Big Ideas, Grand Plans, Modest Budgets,” cites several ambitious infrastructure projects in various parts of the country. Two are in California, and one of those in particular caught my attention. It concerns the state’s supply of drinking water:
“Officials say that a major source of drinking water for about 25 million Californians is at risk. That water currently comes from the delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers meet, and the levees that protect the region are more than 100 years old and are vulnerable to earthquakes. A state task force recommended restoring the delta’s endangered habitat and building a new aqueduct to bring water from Northern California to the arid south, without passing through the delta. A similar proposal was voted down in 1982 because northerners viewed it as a water grab by the south, and farmers in the delta region feared losing their water. But the current drought, and climate change, have provided a new sense of urgency. The bill included $50 million that can be used in the delta region, but that is only a tiny fraction of what the state estimates it will eventually need.
This shudder-inducing peril was detailed very specifically by Marc Reisner in A Dangerous Place. In this book, Reisner imagines a scenario in the future in which a major earthquake strikes the Bay Area.
That was as far as I had gotten, and now I do not want to complete the post, at least in the manner I had planned. I do want to say that Reisner’s harrowing depiction is one of the scariest things I have ever read. He did not write it, however, solely to frighten people; rather, he meant it as a warning. Marc Reisner was living in the Bay Area at the time, and he personalizes this account by imagining his own frantic attempts, as the disaster unfolds, to reach his wife and children.
A Dangerous Place was completed in 2000. Lawrie Mott, Reisner’s wife, states in the Acknowledgments that her husband considered it a matter of utmost urgency “that the manuscript for this book reach print.” It did, in 2003. Marc Reisner died of cancer in 2000. He was 51 years old.
Another of Reisner’s books, Cadillac Desert, tells the story of the American West’s development and the region’s consequent desperate need for water. It formed the basis of a multi-part PBS series, which, like many such worthwhile productions, is currently difficult to obtain.
Cadillac Desert is number 61 on the Modern Library’s list of the one hundred best nonfiction books of the twentieth century.
The National Italian American Foundation is taking donations to the relief effort currently under way in Italy.