A lot of people tell me I’m very lucky to live in the greater San Diego area. After all, you couldn’t ask for a much more pleasant climate. The scenery is beautiful too, and there’s a laid-back pace to life in a lot of ways. And there’s a fascinating mix of cultures and languages here – enough to keep linguists, sociologists and anthropologists busy for decades. But don’t let that fool you. San Diego is not immune to crime. You’d probably assume that anyway, simply because it’s a large city. But just to show you what I mean, I thought it might be interesting to take a crime-fictional look at the area.
Ross Macdonald, the pen name of Kenneth Millar (but I’ll bet you knew that) and his wife Margaret Millar (yes, that Margaret Millar) lived in San Diego for a time, and that experience shows up in his Lew Archer stories. For instance, in The Far Side of the Dollar, Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, who runs Laguna Perdida School, a boarding school for troubled students. The school is located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, so much of the story takes place in North San Diego County. One of the students Tom Hillman has disappeared and his parents are holding the school responsible. Sponti wants Archer to find the boy as soon as possible. Just as they’re discussing the case, Tom’s father Ralph Hillman bursts in saying that he’s been contacted by kidnappers who say they are holding Tom for ransom. Archer goes with Hillman to the family’s home to see what he can do to find the boy. It turns out that this is not a straightforward ‘kidnapping of a rich boy’ case. For one thing, the Hillmans are not very helpful although their son is missing. For another, evidence surfaces that Tom may actually have gone with the kidnappers of his own free will. After two deaths, Archer finds out the truth about the troubled Hillman family.
Speaking of the Millars, Margaret Millar’s Mermaid also takes place in the region north of San Diego. In that novel, attorney Tom Aragon takes on an interesting case. He gets a visit from twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jasper. She wants to know exactly what her rights are. When Aragon asks her to be more specific, she really can’t, and it’s then that he notices that she seems to have a form of mental retardation, although she’s high-functioning. He isn’t able to help her much and soon enough she leaves. That’s the end of the case as far as Aragon is concerned – until a few days later when Cleo’s much-older brother Hilton pays him a visit. Hilton Jasper says that his sister has disappeared and that Aragon is the last person she was known to have seen. Aragon tries to explain that he’s an attorney, not a missing person’s expert, but Jasper wants his sister found. So Aragon starts asking questions, beginning with the staff and students at Holbrook Hall, the special school Cleo attended. He also looks into her troubled family life and the lives of her friends. Bit by slow bit, he traces her movements and finds out what happened to her. As he does, we get a look at the life of the privileged in that part of the US at that time. We also get a look at yachting and wharfside life as well as the Spanish/mission influence on the architecture and some of the culture.
Two of Joseph Wambaugh’s novels are also set in San Diego. Finnegan’s Week is the story of San Diego cop and part-time actor Finbar ‘Fin’ Finnegan. He’s had three divorces and is in a midlife crisis – in short, not in a happy situation. Then things begin to get complicated. Two thousand pairs of shoes are stolen from a warehouse and Detective Bobbie Ann Doggett is assigned to find out what happened to them. Meanwhile, Fin is investigating the disappearance of a truckload of toxic waste. For help with that he turns to District Attorney’s Office investigator Nell Slater. And both Slater and Doggett find that they’re interested in Fin. In the midst of that though, and each from a different angle, Fin, Slater and Doggett connect the thefts with two deaths that occur.
Wambaugh’s Floaters introduces us to Mick Fortnoy, a Harbor Patrol police officer on San Diego’s Mission Bay. He’s had enough personal complications in his life to fill a therapist’s notebook. But things come sharply into focus for him when the world-famous America’s Cup regatta comes to San Diego. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found floating in the bay. She turns out to be Jane Kelly AKA Dawn Coyote, who is, as the saying goes, known to the San Diego Police. Then there’s another death. Now Fortnoy and his patrol partner Leeds look into lives and relationships among the various America’s Cup competitors to see who would have wanted to commit murder. Both of these Wambaugh novels give the reader an authentic look at the San Diego lifestyle and setting.
So does RJ McDonnell’s Jason Duffy series. Duffy is a former rock musician who now works as a San Diego-based PI. Because of his musical background, Duffy is well-known in the rock community, and more than once he’s hired by members of it. In Rock and Roll Homicide, Rock and Roll Rip-Off and The Concert Killer, we get a real sense of the Southern California music scene. And the novels also feature a distinctive sense of the setting. One of them even mentions the San Diego-area town where I live.
When a lot of people think of San Diego/Southern California, they think of surfing. And there is indeed a lot of surfing in the area. Just ask Boone Daniels, whom we meet in Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol. Daniels and his friends are a dedicated group of surfers who call themselves the Dawn Patrol. They have ‘day jobs,’ but their passion is surfing. Then, a local stripper Tamara Roddick disappears. And then her best friend, who goes by the professional name of Angela Hart, is killed. Daniels gets drawn into the case and in the process of solving it, has to confront a case from several years earlier – the heartbreaking disappearance of a local young girl from her front yard.
For readers who like short stories, you might want to try San Diego Noir, a collection of dark San Diego crime stories. Edited by Maryelizabeth Hart, it’s got work by Winslow, T. Jefferson Parker, and lots of other area authors.
As you can see, San Diego may have a wonderful climate, a world-famous zoo (at least the panda in the ‘photo thinks so 😉 ) , great culture, music and food and all the rest of it – even surfing. But peaceful it ain’t…
On the other hand, some of the nicest people turn up in San Diego. I was recently fortunate enough to meet up with crime fiction blogger and Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel judge Craig Sisterton. He’s been spending time in the US and his travels brought him to Southern California. No worries – he’s stayed perfectly safe while he was here. 😉 You’re doing yourself a very big favour by checking out his crime fiction blog Crime Watch.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita.