I Know a Pretty Little Place in Southern California Down San Diego Way*

PandaA 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 Sisterson. 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.


Filed under Don Winslow, Joseph Wambaugh, Kevin Millar, Margaret Millar, Maryelizabeth Hart, R.J. McDonnell, Ross Macdonald, T. Jefferson Parker

20 responses to “I Know a Pretty Little Place in Southern California Down San Diego Way*

  1. All of these books and authors sound interesting. Of course I was aware of Margaret Millar’s and Ross MacDonald’s Santa Barbara connections, but not that they had lived in San Diego. It is very nice that you met with Craig Sisterton and I also enjoy his blog very much.

    • Tracy – I hope if you get the chance to read some of these authors, you’ll enjoy them. I always find it interesting to learn things about authors that have impacted their writing. It gives me a better picture of the author.

  2. Another interesting post, Margot. I’m heading out to your neck of the woods (or a little north of your neck, to Anaheim) tomorrow. I’ll try to avoid any involvement in violent crime while in the area… 😉 And we DO love the San Diego Zoo!

  3. Fascinating! I always associate the books of Margaret Millar and Ross MacDonald with the area, so I have read about it but not visited. And I like Don Winslow, though I haven’t read the one you mention. Is Sue Grafton’s Santa Teresa anywhere nearby? (I do know it’s fictional, but it is identifiable, right?)

    • Moira – Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I like Winslow’s style myself, ‘though I must confess not in a steady dose. As to Santa Teresa, it’s north of San Diego County, so not really close. But to be honest, the climate’s quite similar and there are other similarities too. I just thought it’d be stretching the point a bit much to include her work.

  4. Congrats Margot (on San Diego and the post) – it was also a frequent setting for many of the ‘Wade Miller’ books not to mention one of my favourite TV shows of the 80s, Simon & Simon too!

    • Sergio – Thanks – glad you enjoyed. Oh, and thanks for mentioning Wade Miller. There’s only so much room in any one post. And now you’ve reminded me of a great TV show too. My day is better. 🙂

  5. Margot – Was Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil, later famously adapted for the film Touch of Evil, set in San Diego? Or was it Santa Monica? Neither?

    • Bryan – Oh, that is a good ‘un! As I recall (‘though I could be wrong) it’s not set in San Diego or Santa Monica. I believe it’s set in an unspecified Southern California location.

  6. Margot: I have not been south of San Francisco in California. One of these years we will come to San Diego.

    I have travelled to San Diego with a trio of mystery writers. I have enjoyed a pair of legal mysteries by Steve Martini. Cold Pursuit by T. Jefferson Parker was such a smooth read. Parker is a master. The third was Killer Swell by Jeff Shelby featuring surfer/P.I., Noah Braddock.

    Might we see intrepid reporter, Margot Kinberg, reporting from a surfboard in the Pacific?

    • Bill – I hope sometime you’ll get to San Diego. Might I suggest January, when the average daytime temperature in the area is about 19˚C. .. I agree that Parker is a fine writer, and I’m glad you’ve reminded me of Steve Martini’s work. I admit I’ve not ‘met’ Noah Braddock, although I’ve heard of Shelby’s work.
      And as for a live report? Well, you never know where I’ll turn up next..

  7. Col

    Hopefully I will get to visit through Macdonald’s books in the next year or two. Wambaugh and Winslow are two I’m familiar with already.

  8. San Diego sounds lovely. Yet, like most places, has its share of bad people. But I feel sure that, also like most places, the bad are heavily outweighed by the good!

  9. Seems to me CALIFORNIA GIRL was set there but it could have been farther north. Can’t wait to get there in January.

  10. Great post, Ms. Kinberg! I have heard a lot of good things about San Diego since I’d family that lived there for some 40 years. Isn’t it one of the top 10 cities of the world? With a famous zoo and comic con, I wouldn’t be surprised.

    • Prashant – Oh, yes, Comic-Con comes to San Diego every July. In fact, I’ve a good friend who works the convention. And the zoo really is world-class. The city’s far from perfect (but really, what place is perfect?), but it’s got a lot to recommend it.

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