The Noir Side of Our City

One of my favorite reviews — that is, reviews of my own work — came in 1987, from Art Salm for the Union-Tribune (or possibly the Union; they were two different papers not long ago) regarding my first novel, Wirecutter, just out from Doubleday. I have to paraphrase Salm here. I lost the original clipping some time ago. But he compared reading the hard-boiled suspense novel to traveling by train from San Diego to Los Angeles and seeing our city, as it were, from behind. The tracks run past the backs of buildings, heavy-metal junk deposits, stacks of loading flats overgrown with weeds, and graffiti-festooned cinder block rear entrances, not unlike touring a Hollywood movie lot from behind flats meant to appear like a thriving, well-maintained business strip or residential community. I enjoyed that original observation and thought Salm’s analogy apt.

It’s been done a few times since (Joe Wambaugh, for example), and now a volume of short fiction with just that vision in mind has hit bookstore shelves in time for reading on our city’s beaches in complete safety and sunlight. Edited by Maryelizabeth Hart and published by Akashic Books, San Diego Noir is one of a growing series that began with Brooklyn Noir in 2004 and now includes a formidable list of titles from Baltimore and Delhi Noir to Portland, Richmond, Queens, and Istanbul Noir, with Jerusalem Noir and Mumbai Noir in the works. Editor Hart is co-owner of Mysterious Galaxy Books, San Diego’s oldest genre bookstore catering to fans of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery/suspense. She is married to my old employer, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, a successful novelist and publisher these days. Jeff Mariotte hired me twice when I needed work back in the 1980s at Hunter’s Books on Prospect Street in La Jolla. On the acknowledgment page of Wirecutter I listed Jeff (“the Boss”) Mariotte in gratitude for giving me time off to write the thing.

Mariotte, too, is a contributor to the anthology with “Gold Shield Blues,” a tale of a security man on patrol among the bastions of the wealthy on Mount Soledad. Also represented are Ken Kuhlken, veteran novelist and San Diego Reader alumnus. Same with Luis Alberto Urrea, formerly of these pages and an underrated literary heavyweight.

The not-so-mean streets of the wealthy are represented pretty thoroughly in the collection. That may be unavoidable, as the reality is, this finest of cities has more than the usual share of upper-income residents, successful retirees, real estate and software magnates, and ex-military as well as enlisted rank-and-file. Raymond Chandler once described his fictional Esmeralda (La Jolla) as a town full of retired admirals living with their parents. Martha C. Lawrence, in “Key Witness,” her selection set at La Jolla Cove, writes, “The uncommon sight of police and emergency vehicles in the posh La Jolla neighborhood had caused a nasty traffic jam on Coast Boulevard, the road that snakes along the shoreline. Residents in the high-rise condominiums facing the ocean had come out onto their balconies to see what the ruckus was all about.... They’ve plunked down several million dollars for their homes. Klieg lights and crime-scene looky-loos were not the view they bargained for.”

Among my favorites is Lisa Brackmann’s “Don’t Feed the Bums,” about — you guessed it — Ocean beach. “These bums, they were younger, mostly, single guys, and some of them were a little scary. A lot of them were meth-heads, or so the local gossip went, and she believed that was true; with their greasy hair, the blemishes on their skin, the way their faces had hollowed out and their eyes seemed to have come loose from the sockets, rattling around like marbles in a shot glass.”

It is always a pleasure to pick up anything by Don Winslow, no matter where you find it. Again he has done something original in San Diego Noir with his story, “After Thirty,” set in the 1940s in Pacific Beach, with an AWOL sailor as protagonist. Winslow is great with marginal characters and his Charlie Decker here, the “hard case,” is no exception. One stylistic touch I admired and do not recall ever seeing done (maybe if I thought more about it) is the third-person narrative, with Decker’s dialogue rendered true-to-life. Ungrammatical, flawed, but I-know-what-you-mean syntax echoed in the omniscient voice, an almost subliminal approach that perhaps only other writers or editors might notice, is coolly effective. Winslow is a writer’s writer if ever there was one. And don’t miss the hard-boiled Rosie the Riveter in wartime San Diego in “The Home Front,” by Astrid Anderson and Diane Clark. Well worth your while.

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Thanks, John! (If it was '87, I was with the Tribune.)

-- Arthur Salm

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