Santa Barbara Noir

By Tannenbaum, Barbara | California History, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Santa Barbara Noir

Tannenbaum, Barbara, California History

It was summer and my spouse and I were staying at the Four Season Biltmore Santa Barbara. We were traveling with our dog and therefore had to walk her late at night across the exotic palm-lined grounds, through Spanish tiled arcades, and finally down to Butterfly Beach across the road. Behind us the lights in the elegant 1927 Spanish Colonial-styled hotel glowed warm and inviting. Ahead, the beach was shrouded in darkness and fog. Another nighttime stroller seemingly appeared out of nowhere, his outline fuzzy in the coastal mist. A buoy tolled mournfully in the distance.

It was a perfect "noir" moment, or rather what author and historian DJ Waldie calls "noir adjacent." Although picturesque and evocative, nothing bad was going to happen. The stranger, now revealed to be wearing shorts and flip flops, was not going to hurt us. But for a moment, everything looked and felt so Chandleresque. He might have emerged in a trench coat and fedora. And I, not usually out at the beach in the small hours of the night, just might have been carrying some blackmail money. The Biltmore itself, originally designed for southern California's high rollers during the roaring twenties, well, it could have stood in for the mansion of a decadent oil heiress whose best days were behind her.

Such are the pleasures of vacationing in Santa Barbara. Dotted with Andalusian red-tile roofs, sheltered by the Santa Ynez mountains, and brightened by southern California's steaming hot climate, the setting makes it easy to get lost in a fantasy. My thoughts were turning noir. Maybe it was the detective fiction I'd brought with me to lounge poolside at the Biltmore's Coral Casino. Here, in the one-time playground of Greta Garbo and Errol Flynn, I discovered private detective Lew Archer, a character created by Ross MacDonald (following the template set down by Hammett and Chandler before the war) who investigated crime in a seaside town called Santa Teresa, a thinly veiled Santa Barbara.

There's a link between detective fiction and travel, explained University of California Santa Cruz professor Paul Skenazy. "The best stories come from knowing the territory. Detective stories are at heart, local. The writer has to know the terrain, how people act towards one another, the alleyways and byways they might hide in."

One may not think that this serenely beautiful and wealthy town would have much to hide. But as MacDonald showed us, where there are rich people, there will also be poor people. From such divisions come stories, lots of them.

There was certainly a backstory to the San Ysidro Ranch's Old Adobe dining room where we enjoyed an elegant brunch. The upscale hotel was originally owned by twenties-era film star Ronald Coleman. JFK and Jackie had honeymooned here in 1950. The aura of Hollywood glamour still clings to the 500-acre onetime citrus ranch. It's also a good starting point for hiking into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Like a detective searching the present for clues to the past, trails connect us to the hidden gems of nature. They slow down our sense of time and surprise us with their juxtapositions. The Cold Spring Canyon trail is an alder-shaded, three-mile hike (roundtrip) to the top of Monetecito Overlook, giving you a spectacular view of the coastline and the Channel Islands.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Santa Barbara Noir


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?