Anyone who doesn’t find the beach at least a little bit disturbing hasn’t really thought about it enough.
I spend a lot of time at the beach in the summer, and it’s hard not to notice the darker side of the ocean after a while: the crime-scene bleakness of a beach town in the rain, or the wind-whipped days when the breakers seem intent on your bodily destruction. So I was excited when, a few months ago, I came across an L.A. Times article musing on the “fascinating light-dark duality” of that city’s coastal playground. The article looked at the beach through the lens of California crime writers from the golden age of pulp to today, and lined up a stellar reading list that included Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Leigh Brackett, Horace McCoy, and others.
Suddenly I realized that the beach and noir go together like sunshine and skin cancer.
Think about it. Of all the natural elements, the sea is the most noir. Have you ever gone swimming and felt the force of the tide seem to pull you away from the shore? That’s because it’s trying to take you out to the endless nothingness of the watery underworld. It wants to grab you and never give you back. When this happens you should feel, as David Foster Wallace once wrote, a “marrow-level dread of the oceanic…the intuition of the sea as primordial nada, bottomless depths inhabited by cackling tooth-studded things rising toward you at the rate a feather falls.”
Yet the image of the ocean as menacing and full of death is at the same time slightly clichéd. This is not a new metaphor; in American fiction it’s been around since at least 1851. But, like noir, its clichés don’t make it any less formidable or compelling. We expect the girl; we expect the gun. But it’s the details of how the girl and the gun are employed that keep us turning pages; likewise, it’s the physical details of the water that would make us afraid were we to actually get carried out on a riptide or spot a dark shadow swimming below us in the bay.
Beach noir, as I envision it, is a sub-genre of plain old, everyday noir. It has a defined set of criteria: stories are usually set in that kingdom by the sea called L.A.; it entails at least one stop ocean-side, and preferably has the sea figure into the narrative in some form; it must somehow convey either the sense of seediness and desperation that characterizes the beach town or the atavistic fear of death that I personally feel every time I swim too far from shore. And of course it must seize the metaphoric qualities of beachiness, like In A Lonely Place, which begins with a suspected serial killer musing, “It felt good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like a gauzy veil to touch his face. There was something in it … something of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind.”
I decided to read every book mentioned in the L.A. Times article, and even started a book club devoted to it. It’s a virtual book club, so anyone can join. This is great for bi-coastal participation, not so good for the getting-drunk part of book clubbing that everyone knows is really the best part. (Not that there’s anything wrong with drinking gin gimlets alone in your room. No sir, nothing at all.)
The Chandler we read, The Little Sister (1949), fulfilled the beach noir requirement only slightly (it partly took place in Bay City, a fictional town apparently modeled on Santa Monica) and I mostly chose it because it was one Marlowe novel I hadn’t read yet. It’s a strangely exhausted, washed up sort of book, and you get the sense that Marlowe isn’t in peak physical or mental form in it. It’s an uneven novel and I would say deservedly obscure, though it certainly provides its share of pleasures – most notably a hallucinatory non sequitur of a scene in which Marlowe plays cards with a police station guard.
Ross Macdonald’s Zebra Striped Hearse (1962), on the other hand, does fulfill the requirements of a beach noir pretty well: it features some violence in a house in Malibu, and a gang of surf punks who provide a pretty important clue in the mystery. It’s one of the finest books in the Lew Archer series. Macdonald writes some of the best prose in the genre, judiciously garnishing the detective novel sirloin with pleasant dashes of literary parsley, and his imagery edges toward the sublime (“Sunbathers were lying around in the sand like bodies after a catastrophe”).
I highly recommend reading anything by Ross Macdonald, but if you’re short on time, why not pick up They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935). At 143 pages you can read it in a short afternoon. Its imagery is more hellish than sublime, an unrelentingly bleak novella that is almost impossible to describe without comparison to a slap in the face or a punch to the gut. Horses turns a Depression-era dance contest at the Santa Monica pavilion into a nightmarish danse macabre. Is it, strictly speaking, noir? Perhaps not, but I defy you to find a darker book that takes place at a beach. In it, cruelty permeates everything, kindness is killed, bodily humiliations abound, Hollywood is a fire-breathing she-monster, and the beach is merely the body’s last stop before corpsehood.
We still have four books to go before Noir Beach closes for the season (In A Lonely Place, No Good From A Corpse, Tapping the Source, and Dawn Patrol) and I invite any reader who is interested to join us. Until then, I’ll just leave you with a piece of advice an eight-year-old gave me at the beach once: never turn your back on a wave.
Photo credit: SAN DIEGO—The coastline, 1968. © Dennis Stock / Magnum Photos