But now that I own a motor vehicle (granted, a minivan) and have a little more folding green, I decided to take my family on a cross-country drive this past summer. We spent twelve days trekking from Philly to the Pacific Ocean, stopping at whatever caught our eye.
Of course, being a crime writer, my eye usually goes to dark places.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the allergy pills took hold . . . and I came to the realization that the U.S.A.—the whole dang thing—was an extremely noir country. Everywhere you look, there’s something to remind you of that French word for “black” that Otto Penzler thinks we all use incorrectly.
Don’t believe me? Here are only a few of our trip highlights:
Memphis, TN: Sun Noir
If you do only one thing in Tennessee, go to Memphis and take the Sun Studio tour. You can stand in the same crude soundproofed room where Elvis rocked and Jerry Lee rolled and Johnny Cash—the Homme en Noir, as the French would say—shoved dollar bills between the strings and frets of his guitar and belted out “Ring of Fire.”
(And speaking of Mr. Cash, a quick side recommendation: when you’re driving across the country, there’s nothing better than cranking “The Man Comes Around” from American IV on a desolate highway. Surely this song is on the mix tape God will pop into the celestial tape deck when he kick-starts Armageddon.)
But Johnny Cash isn’t even the noir-est thing about Sun Studio. No, that honor would go to the Prisonaires, a blues group made up of real-life convicts. We’re not talking about a group of guys who nicked a couple of bucks from the church collection plate; these were hard men in the big house for rape, murder, larceny, and involuntary manslaughter.
Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips heard them on the radio one day in 1953 and somehow convinced Tennessee State Prison to transport them under armed guard to his tiny storefront studio at 706 Union Avenue. There, the cons recorded an original: “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” The single sold fifty thousand copies; later, it would become a favorite of the governor of Tennessee. The song is as melancholy and haunting as the opening of a Cornell Woolrich novel, which is about as noir as it gets.
Hot Springs, AR: You’re Soaking In It
I’ve wanted to visit Hot Springs ever since I read Stephen Hunter’s novel of the same name—which is one of my all-time favorite thrillers. They say Al Capone visited Hot Springs to try to burn away his syphilis. I thought about this as my daughter Sarah dipped a hand into the 143-degree water bubbling up across the street from the Arlington Hotel—where Capone rented an entire floor for his bodyguards and flunkies.
But, hey, at that temperature, it should be fine, right?
The springs were a big attraction for the East Coast and Chicago gangsters who flocked to Hot Springs back in the early 20th century. Gangsters like Owney Madden, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and a bunch of other guys with cameos in Boardwalk Empire loved the place. See, back then, the town offered protection, gambling, booze, dames, and, of course, those warm soothing waters to burn off whatever you picked up from the dames. Is Hot Springs ashamed of this sordid past? Hell no. Witness the Gangster Museum of America (www.tgmoa.com), just a few blocks away from the Arlington Hotel—a must-see if you’re in town.
Why are the springs so hot? The science nerds tell us that the water once fell as rain about forty thousand years ago, and that the earth’s superheated crust warms the ancient precipitation before shooting it to the surface.
But I think the water is warm because Hot Springs is just that many steps closer to Hell.
(I kid Hot Springs. They know that.)
Dallas, TX: Your American Nightmare Begins Here
They give you a pair of headphones and a little plastic box and nudge you into an elevator. You walk along, listening to the early days of JFK, looking at black-and-white blow-ups of photos and newspaper headlines. And then right about halfway through the tour . . . there it is. The window where Lee Harvey Oswald (allegedly) picked up his rifle and pointed it out the window and took out the President.
The actual corner, which still has fake book boxes eerily stacked up in piles, is sealed off by clear plastic barriers. But you can look out of the next set of windows and have pretty much the same POV as LHO.
And when the tour’s over, you can go downstairs and hang out on the Grassy Knoll. You can look out onto Elm Street, and watch idiot tourists shout “whooo-hooooo!” and do fist pumps as they try to stand on the exact spot (helpfully marked by a painted white X) where JFK was hit with the first bullet . . . and dodge the waves of traffic that come blasting down Elm, one green light at a time. Maybe it’s me, but I swear some of those drivers give it a little extra gas.
Amarillo, TX: Left for Dead in the Cadillac Desert
Some nutcase buried ten perfectly good Cadillacs, headfirst, in a cow pasture right outside Amarillo. Every morning hundreds of people stop to see them, write their names on them, take pictures of them.
My theory? There are bodies in each of those trunks, sealed in plastic and deposited by serial killers and/or international hit men. It’s the hide-in-plain-sight theory of body dumps: nobody’s ever going to crack open one of these cars because it’s, like, art, man. And nobody notices the stink because it’s in a cow pasture, y’dig?
But one day—mark my words—somebody’s going to scribble the wrong combination of letters and symbols on a fender of one of those Caddies. An ancient consciousness will be awoken. The barrier between this world and a world long forgotten will begin to thin. The Others will awaken. And when They cross over, They will find unholy vessels waiting for Them, ready to be reanimated and pressed into unspeakable service . . .
Like I said, it’s just a theory.
Taos, NM: Where No One Can Hear You Scream
The fact that Dennis Hopper lived here for years qualifies this entire town as hard-boiled (as well as noir). But Taos also looks like some slightly sinister, far-off place . . . the kind you might encounter in a 1950s B movie about a man and a woman and a suitcase full of cash.
The town is perched between the Rio Grande gorge and the base of the Rockies. When you first drive in, it looks like the entire place hangs precariously between the peaks of a stark, gorgeous Heaven and a crack in the Earth that leads to Hell. (Come to think of it, is Taos the sister city of Hot Springs?)
One of my favorite writers, Fredric Brown, lived in Taos for a couple of years, basing one of his best novels (The Far Cry) here. Brown had protagonist George Weaver describe Taos in a way that is both strangely upbeat and uneasy:
I like this place, Luke, Partly because I don’t know anybody here, partly because it’s smaller than Santa Fe and more peaceful. Besides, it’s got something; I don’t know what. I feel better already, I think.
Weaver, of course, will go on to try to solve the murder of a girl named Jenny Ames—slaughtered eight years ago in the house he’s just rented.
I suspect Brown was inspired by his own apartment—located in the infamous Governor Bent House, where the first governor of the New Mexico Territory (Charles Bent) was scalped and killed by a band of angry Mexicans and Pueblo Indians. Brown knew this, and moved in anyway. Brown is my hero.
Grand Canyon, AZ: Going Down
Arizona kind of has this “fuck you, deal with it” vibe going on for most of its length . . . until you pull into Flagstaff, and then it’s like—whoa. The temperature drops 20 degrees, there are actual trees with actual green stuff on them. Makes you wonder if the city’s founding fathers struck some kind of deal with the devil, but no matter. This is just a rest stop on your way to the Grand Canyon, which people will tell you is gorgeous and awe-inspiring and a must-see.
They’re right. It is all of these things. But here’s something they don’t tell you: THE GRAND CANYON IS FUCKING TERRIFYING, ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE SMALL CHILDREN.
See, at one point along the South Rim, there’s like . . . no fence. No barrier. No wall. No nothing between you and a short drop to horrifying, bone-shattering death. While I do have a healthy fear of heights, it wasn’t me I was worried about. I have enough sense to stay many, many feet away from the edge of a mile-deep hole in the ground.
My kids, on the other hand—well, they’re curious, fearless little people who don’t have the benefit of my life experiences. Namely, that if you’re going to be somewhere where death is a possibility, death will pretty much find you. So I spent most of our visit in a state of near cardiac arrest. My son Parker tried to talk sense into me.
“What what what . . . oh, my God, there’s no fence . . . no nothing.”
“Dad, you’re cutting off my circulation!”
I looked down and realized that I had my poor son’s hand in a death grip. I would have let go if I hadn’t glanced down into the gaping maw of the biggest gorge in the world and saw this little outcropping of rock where a kid—swear to God, no older than three years old—was bouncing around like a rubber ball, all the while his dad was just laughing and half-paying attention to him and it took all my strength to resist shouting YOU IDIOT YOUR KID IS GOING TO BOUNCE RIGHT INTO THE FUCKING CANYON JESUS H. CHRIST WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU I’D COME DOWN THERE TO KICK YOUR ASS BUT I’M AFRAID I’LL FALL . . .
Los Angeles, CA: The Other Side of Summer
I seem to always have Elvis Costello’s 1991 semi-hit “The Other Side of Summer” playing in my head when I drive through the City of Angels. Maybe it’s E.C.’s pairing of a bouncy Beach Boys–style melody with the most downbeat lyrics this side of Horace McCoy:
The dancing was desperate
The music was worse
They bury your dreams
They dig up the worthless
Don’t get me wrong; I really like L.A. I’d even go as far as to pull a Randy Newman and say I love the place. But nowhere else in the U.S. is the light and dark so in your face. Maybe it’s all of the sunshine and palm trees and genetically modified beautiful people that help you really see the darkness.
This time I came to LA. with a mission. I wanted to scout some Hollywood Hills locations for my novel in progress, Fun and Games. Novelist and screenwriter David J. Schow—one of my favorite writers—was happy to show me around.
In addition to the places you’ll read about in Fun and Games, Dave walked me up the infamous Invasion of the Body Snatchers steps. You know, where Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter try to escape the hordes of Pod People? Well, we retraced their steps. Halfway up, I would have been more than happy to let an alien life force take control of my body.
We also visited my new favorite L.A. attraction: the Bronson Caves. If you’ve ever watched an old western or sci-fi flick—or any episode of the Adam West Batman, for that matter—you know the Bronson Caves. Everything from Robot Monster to Army of Darkness used these nifty, drafty caves as a location, and pretty much anybody can walk up and check it out (unless someone is filming). Step inside and you feel like you’re a thousand miles from L.A. Suddenly you’re in a shadow zone where things can come out of the walls and suck you in and slurp your gray matter out from your eye sockets… or where an outlaw can gut-shoot you and leave you for dead, and you realize that yelling will only tip off the coyotes.
Sing it with me and Randy: I luuuuuuuv el-AY (WE LOVE IT!).
San Francisco, CA: End of the Line
We pulled into town and immediately checked into the Westin St. Francis, the luxury hotel where Fatty Arbuckle once infamously . . . uh, partied. At sundown, the fog obscured the tops of the nearby buildings, and a lone trumpet wailed down on Union Square. (Already, you’ve gotta give the city props for lighting and sound track.)
But then we stepped outside.
Walk across the street, and you can almost imagine Gene Hackman trailing Cindy Williams with a mike hidden in a shopping bag, just like in The Conversation.
Wander over to the Embarcadero and you’re suddenly in the middle of Don Siegel’s The Lineup—so much so that you expect to bump into Eli Wallach at any given moment.
Wander up to Coit Tower and pass the art deco apartment building where Bogie hid in Dark Passage.
Look up and see the same high-rise building where the Scorpio hid with a sniper rifle in Dirty Harry.
Hit Fisherman’s Wharf and gaze over at Alcatraz and you can almost see Point Blank’s Lee Marvin dying from gunshot wounds.
Don’t even get me started about Vertigo, which is just as much a love letter to the city as it is a brilliant suspense flick.
I’ll admit it; I went on a sloppy Hammett binge. I reread Falcon. I dragged the wife and kids to the 891 Post building, where Hammett wrote his first three novels, including The Maltese Falcon. I forced them into Dashiell Hammett Alley, and made them eat at John’s Grill, where Sam Spade famously ordered the lamb chops, baked potato, and sliced tomato. (As did I.) I even ordered a “Bloody Brigid,” named for Falcon’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, which came in a souvenir glass. The drink was cold and cherry-flavored and cloyingly sweet and . . .
Okay, maybe that wasn’t so noir after all.
Duane Swierczynski is the author of the forthcoming Charlie Hardie trilogy, starting with Fun and Games (June 2011), from Mulholland Books. Several of his crime thrillers have been optioned for film, and he’s written about the Punisher, Deadpool, Cable, the Immortal Iron Fist, and Black Widow for Marvel Comics. Duane is currently collaborating with CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker on a series of bestselling “digi-novel” thrillers which so far include Level 26: Dark Origins and Dark Prophecy. Duane lives in Philadelphia, the noir capital of the East Coast. You can visit him at secretdead.blogspot.com or follow him at @swierczy.