Sunday, August 4, 2013

Santa Monica Noir

Palisades Park looking over the bluffs in good weather
It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face. There was something in it akin to flying; the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth, of being a part of the wildness of air. Something too of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind...
The unseasonably foggy weather we're experiencing now in August makes me think of Dorothy B. Hughes' 1942 noir thriller "In a Lonely Place," which is set in Santa Monica. The novel opens with the protagonist, former fighter pilot Dix Steele, standing on the bluffs of Santa Monica's Palisades Park, looking out over the fog-shrouded beach.

Palisades Park, fog
It wasn't often he could capture any part of that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky. There was a touch of it here, looking down at the ocean rolling endlessly in from the horizon; here high above the beach road with its crawling traffic, its dotting of lights. The outline of beach houses zigzagged against the sky but did not obscure the pale waste of sand, the dark restless waters beyond.
Dix Steele is a loner, living in the Beverly Hills apartment of an old college pal who's gone off to Rio. On impulse, he rides the bus to the beach. He remembers his fellow pilot Brub Nicolai lives in Santa Monica, and when he contacts him, Dix suddenly becomes connected with people again.  Brub is now an LAPD detective with his new wife Sylvia, and he's investigating a series of murders - young women strangled by an unknown assailant. Dix claims to be in Los Angeles to write a detective novel, and involves himself in the investigation as research.

As Brub and Sylvia try to bring Dix into their circle of friends, Dix falls obsessively in love with Laurel, a girl in his apartment complex.

Santa Monica's north beach, seen from Palisades Park
As Hughes' plot masterfully unfolds, the reader becomes more and more unsettled. The same night Dix visits the Nicolais, the strangler claims another victim. The novel is told entirely from Dix's point of view, and we see his jittery anger, his jealous thoughts of Laurel, his paranoia about cops at the murder scene. As more is revealed, we think back to the opening scene  - more sinister, with our new perspective -  as Dix watches a girl step off a bus and walk through the fog:

The pedestrian bridge on a clear day
He saw her face again as she passed under the yellow fog light, saw that she didn't like the darkness and fog and loneness. She started down the California Incline; he could hear her heels striking hard on the warped pavement as if the sound brought her some reassurance....It was entirely without volition that he found himself moving down the slant, winding walk. He didn't walk hard...nor did he walk fast. Yet she heard him coming behind her. He knew she heard him, for her heel struck an extra beat, as if she had half-stumbled. and her steps went faster. He...lengthened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid....He could have caught up to her with ease, but he didn't. It was too soon....

Fog on the California incline, shows the pedestrian bridge
The lights from passing cars interrupt the scene, and Dix boards another bus northbound on the Coast Highway.
He didn't care where it was going; it would carry him away from the fog light....Fog stalked silently past the windows. The bus made no stops until it reached the end...where it turned an abrupt corner....turning up into the dark canyon. He stepped out and he walked the short block to a little business section....He wanted a drink. It was a nice bar, from the ship's prow that jutted upon the sidewalk to the dim ship's interior. It was a man's bar, although there was a dark-haired squawk-voiced woman in it.....
Foggy Ocean Avenue
It's from here he contacts his old friend, and the plot begins. Without showing violence, only hinting at Dix's past, Hughes builds the inevitable conclusion that Dix is the serial killer. His paranoia builds until he is found out.

Our odd summer fog, which brings a chill with it, is an evocative reminder of these brooding scenes.You can stand on the edge of the bluffs today and see the same beach Dix brooded over.

California Incline today
The California Incline still slants down to the Coast Highway, and the path still snakes through the bluffs.

The bar with the ship's prow is still there, too, on East Channel Road. A speakeasy in the 1920s, by the '50s it was a gay bar called the S.S. Friendship.

Historical photo from the Hideout website
Writer Christopher Isherwood lived in Santa Monica Canyon, and wrote about the Friendship bar in his novel "A Single Man," where he called it the Starboard Side.
...He sees the round green porthole lights of the Starboard Side, down on the corner of the Ocean Highway across from the beach, shining to welcome him.

Now the bar with the ship's prow is SHOREbar - a celebrity hot-spot where paparazzis recently snapped Katy Perry hanging out. You can see some old photos of the bar at the Hideout site, and read stories at the Friendship site - both of which are still live.  Does the celebrity glitter banish the brooding spell of Dix Steele, I wonder?

When the fog comes in off the ocean, it blurs the present, and lets you sense the lingering shadows of the past, that still remain beneath the surface.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Dix Steele

I confess to laughing when I read our anti-hero's name.

mikey said...

In the '90s I spent a lot of time in Santa Barbara (I had a big customer in Carpenteria that was my excuse for spending inordinate amounts of time there). I'd often ramble down Hwy 1 to Mugu, Malibu and Santa Monica in the early morning fog, returning to Santa Barbara for a late lunch and cocktails on the beach.

Farther down, towards Anaheim, is Huntington Beach, important in mikey world for two reasons. First, it was the setting for a fantastic novel by Ken Goddard from the early '80s called "Balefire". In much the way that Westport is a character in the Bannerman books, or Eastern Kentucky is a character in "Justified" (a Leonard constant, as he used Detroit or Miami in his novels for decades), Huntington Beach plays a major role in "Balefire". It's amazingly (to me) not a well-known novel - hell it doesn't even have a Wackypedia entry - but if you find it it's awesome.

The other event that cements Huntington Beach in the lore of mikeyworld took place in South Tahoe in the '80s. I had to go back up the hill to appear in court, and while I was there I ran completely out of money. I was sitting in a disco kind of bar sipping a glass of water when I struck up a conversation with an absolutely stunning, super-model caliber blonde woman. Eventually she took me up to her room, and in the morning gave me 20 bucks for gas to get home. The thing I remember about her was her long, curly blonde hair, her stylish denim jumpsuit and the fact that she was from Huntington Beach...

Glennis said...

I'll check out Balefire, Mikey.

And Thunder - yeah, Dix Steele (Beavis and Butthead snicker). But the novel is really cool - really creepy and evocative.

M. Bouffant said...

Recorded the film version Thursday (pretty sure I haven't seen it). Maybe this will inspire me to watch it instead of letting it sit in the DVR for six mos.

Glennis said...

The film version whitewashes it - the lead guy is innocent but framed. The novel is much darker. See the film, and read the book, too!

smalltownme said...

We need some mood music here.