Paula L. Woods, Special to The Times, March 3, 2005
just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in
California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out
to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under
the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it
was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in.
James M. Cain
common fantasy, wondering how other people live in Los
Angeles. And whether we get our clues from a glimpse inside
homes or apartments as we streak by on freeways or at an
open house for a property we have absolutely no intention of
buying, some of us are constantly trying on other lives for
size — seeing if we can shed our familiar residential skin
and live large in that midcentury cliffhanger, Moderne
apartment building or Craftsman bungalow that looks so
appealing from afar.
us are too polite to actually violate someone's privacy this
way, and luckily, we don't have to. There are people who can
give us guilt-free trips inside the homes we covet. Only
sometimes they leave a dead body in the living room, or in
the hot tub, or the guesthouse.
these lucky or possibly twisted souls? They're Southern
California's mystery writers, and in most respects, they're
like any other fiction or screenwriter, toiling to make
sense of the jumble of characters, plot and dialogue in
mystery writers — and I confess I'm one of them — are unlike
others in their reliance on setting to evoke feelings, to
stir memories, to illuminate character, to make, riffing on
Gertrude Stein, the there there. For many readers who
love Southern California, it is mysteries that take them
inside those homes and gardens often spied only from a
first glimpse into the "otherworldliness" of mysteries often
compels casual readers to become fans of the genre. Pearl
Yonezawa, senior librarian at the Los Feliz branch of the
Los Angeles Public Library, created the Lounge Chair Author
Program and a Los Feliz in Literature collection because a
book discussion of a local author's mystery stimulated such
a rich conversation among her patrons.
discussion went from the story to architecture to history to
good places in the neighborhood to eat," Yonezawa says.
"Readers sitting around discussing their perceptions and
sharing their sense of neighborhood. How great was that?"
hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over
the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of
Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel
showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied
to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long
and convenient hair.
Marlowe's entrance to the Sternwood mansion in Chandler's
"The Big Sleep" is often quoted by contemporary mystery
writers when asked for the best description of a Southern
California interior. Nina Revoyr, a novelist whose mystery
"Southland" was praised for its evocation of the Crenshaw
district in the 1960s, remembers the "cool-eyed humor" of
"The Big Sleep" as well as James M. Cain's "Double
description of the house in Glendale is one of my favorite
descriptions of an L.A.-type abode. He did more with that
brief description than many other writers can do in much
longer ones. Houses do often feel haphazard and poorly
conceived here. And yet, there's something so
quintessentially L.A. about those places — forced into the
landscape, yet working along with it."
other writers, it was Ross Macdonald's ability to evoke
vivid locations in a few words that inspired them. Gary
Phillips, author of "Monkology," a collection of short
stories featuring private investigator Ivan Monk, and other
crime novels, remembers an L.A.-based short story by
Macdonald called "The Suicide" as being among the best he's
passage in that story, of Macdonald's P.I., Lew Archer,
being led through a home that's elegant and lean but manages
to convey the sense of the place as well as psychological
insights into a character. I think about Macdonald a lot
when I write, because I want my writing to be that spare,
yet not so devoid of detail that it becomes dull. It's all
about suggesting more with less."
me through the living room, which was simply and expensively
furnished in black iron and net, into the master bedroom.
The huge square bed was neatly made, and covered with a pink
quilted silk spread. Clare avoided looking at it, as though
the conjunction of a man and a bed gave her a guilty
and Faye Kellerman, husband and wife as well as bestselling
writers of L.A.-based crime fiction, acknowledge Macdonald's
influence. "I find Macdonald to be the master," Jonathan
asserts. "I love his descriptions of Santa Barbara and its
environs which, like L.A., has always provided fodder for
crime novels because of the disparity between the haves and
the have-nots, something I've tried to capture in my own
does the broadscapes like Macdonald," Faye agrees, but she
also cites contemporary favorite, Sue Grafton. "She
describes these typical Santa Barbara houses with their
perennial flowerbeds and brick patios. One of her recurring
characters, Henry, is always puttering around with plants."
Walter Mosley's description of 1950s Watts homes and gardens
in "Black Betty" (1994) inspired me to write an alternative
history of L.A., focusing on the modern-day black enclaves
of View Park, Baldwin Hills and other ethnic communities, a
plan that has sustained me through three novels.
of a fence separating our properties there were planted all
kinds of trees and shrubbery. Jacaranda, kumquat, magnolia,
and trimmed bamboo made our borderline. Ferns and
honeysuckle closed up any gaps that might allow you to see
from one yard to the other. I kept my side of the yard cut
back and trim. I liked the sun shining down on us. But Lucky
let the trees hang over the driveway so that you had the
feeling that you were entering a jungle path, some dark
tunnel into another time.
Hirahara, author of last year's "Summer of the Big Bachi,"
says Janet Fitch's descriptions of the "heat, the smells,
the Santa Ana winds" in her novel "White Oleander" stirred a
personal memory and got her creative juices flowing.
remember during one hot September during my childhood how
the whole family, including Grandma from Japan, all slept
outside on our Altadena backyard lawn on towels. The scene
[in 'White Oleander'] of the mother and daughter lying on
their roof reminds me of that."
also drew on memories of her father and other Japanese
gardeners she gleaned from editing the anthology "Green
Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern
http://www.heritagesource.com ., to create
Mas Arai, an Altadena gardener-sleuth. Readers of her first
book were treated to a guided tour of Gardena apartments,
Altadena and Pasadena gardens, and less savory parts of the
San Fernando Valley. "I do insert descriptions of landmarks
that I feel are meaningful to Southern Californians,
especially Japanese Americans," she says.
often draw on the familiar in creating their stories,
whether it's a person or a place. T. Jefferson Parker,
author of 12 crime novels, including the recent "California
Girl," set his fourth novel, "Summer of Fear," in a Laguna
Canyon home built on caissons, which is where he was living
when he wrote it.
opening passage of the book is all about that house, and the
way it stands up to nature's fury but may not always be able
to do so. The novel is about love and courage versus random
violence, chaos and cancer, and the house — precariously
built over the rugged canyon — seemed to me to be a domestic
embodiment of that struggle."
mystery writer uses her own residence as the home of a
protagonist (or victim), it's fine, but to use a family
member's or friend's own (or that of a stranger) raises
issues of confidentiality. Jerrilyn Farmer, author of eight
Madeline Bean catering mysteries, used a Whitley Heights
home owned by her brother and sister-in-law for her
formerly owned by silent film star Ben Turpin, so I suppose
it had already given up its claim to anonymity," she says.
But in her just released "The Flaming Luau of Death," Farmer
found an even better choice for a home being renovated by
Madeline's friend Wesley Westcott — one in real life being
restored by Farmer's best friend, Brandon Hoskins. "The
house Wesley restores is in the coolest, tucked away,
historic neighborhood called Hightower, above the Hollywood
Bowl. Most people have never heard of it. You have to take
an elevator to get there and it's all pedestrian up there."
neighborhoods also hold a special appeal for writer John
Morgan Wilson, who lives in West Hollywood and set his
latest Benjamin Justice mystery there. "The plot of 'Moth
and Flame' revolves around the city's historic
architecture," he says. I set scenes in homes ranging from
turn-of-the-century cottages to the lush apartments of the
historic Garden District to the famous Schindler House,
which became the setting for a murder."
Wilson can walk his West Hollywood neighborhood, more
writers are like Farmer, who uses friends' homes as
locations. "I am brutal with my poaching," confesses Ayelet
Waldman, author of the Mommy Track mysteries. "I know that's
terrible to say, but that's what writers do. We cannibalize
other people's lives."
Sometimes, the cannibalization is long-distance: John
Shannon, when dreaming up a "Persian room" for a character
in 2003's "City of Strangers," described the home of an
Iranian acquaintance in Phoenix.
sometimes homes we know just won't do, which sends writers
like newcomer Patricia Smiley, author of the recent "False
Profits," to the L.A. Times' real estate section and to open
houses. "But I always hold my breath, waiting for the real
estate agent to point his finger at me and shout, 'Fraud!
Looky-loo! Writer!' "
writers, especially those who write about fictional
locations — Grafton's Santa Teresa or Jan Burke's Las
Piernas (a stand-in for Long Beach) — have a different set
of challenges and sources. "The homes I describe in my
books," says Grafton, "are sometimes those I've seen
first-hand and sometimes photographs from magazines or books
on Santa Barbara-Montecito architecture. I see a fictional
house as indicative of a character's status and taste. In 'P
Is for Peril,' I used an exterior I saw in the L.A. Times
Magazine. The interior, I invented."
is, in fact, so famous for her fictional locations that an
entire book, " 'G' Is for Grafton," was written that details
locations of her sleuth Kinsey Millhone's home, office and
other important locations in the series. (There's even a
floor plan of Kinsey's ever-evolving apartment.)
Kellerman has drawn on this kind of creativity over the
course of a career that spans 22 bestsellers. "I tend to be
a descriptive writer and I attempt to create an evocative,
hypnotic state for the reader," he says. Indeed, Kellerman
is cited by Robert S. Levinson, author of "Ask a Dead Man,"
as one of the best of the modern writers who creates mood
with his descriptions. "Chandler did it with economy, in a
line or two," Levinson notes, "while Kellerman often employs
layers of detail," as in a Holmby Hills garden party in
gardens fronted the mansion: gravel paths, more cypress, a
maze of boxwood hedges, limestone fountains, reflecting
pools, hundreds of beds of roses so bright they seemed
fluorescent. Partygoers clutching long-stemmed glasses
strolled the paths and admired the plantings. Admired
themselves in the mirrored water of the pools.
addition to Kellerman's garden parties, Mosley's backyards
or Grafton's perennials and patios, Chandler's description
of Gen. Sternwood's greenhouse in "The Big Sleep" also
resonated for some writers when asked to recall their
favorite garden in a mystery.
more the atmosphere of the place than the specifics of it
that got to me," Parker explains. "I could really feel
big-shouldered Marlowe trapped in this nauseating humidor of
a room, trying to make sense of the general and his
are also used symbolically by Smiley, who marvels at our
region's "year-round sun-baked gardens [which] run the gamut
from verdant, park-like landscaping to simple rows of
ranunculus lining a cracked cement walkway to a half-dozen
sunflowers clawing their way through the hard-packed clay
soil. It is this diversity that makes L.A. attractive as a
locale for writers. All you have to do is turn another
corner, take another freeway exit and you arrive in another
L.A. and in another writer's story."