Santa Barbara Noir

By Tannenbaum, Barbara | California History, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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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.

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