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READING: Ventura County

Where Thrillers Thrive

Mystery writers will gather for local conference to celebrate Santa Barbara's sleuthing tradition.

September 18, 1997|CATHERINE DAIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Catherine Dain is author of the Freddie O'Neil private-eye series, nominated twice for the Shamus award by the Private Eye Writers of America. Her latest book is "Dead Man's Hand." She also writes a bimonthly column on the Southern California mystery-writing community for Mystery Scene magazine

New Yorkers don't like to admit it, but Southern Californians spend more per capita on books than they do. And an ever-popular genre--check out the Sunday best-seller lists if you don't believe me--is the mystery. (An argument can be made that all great literature has elements of mystery, including the Bible, but I'm not going to make it here.)

California is not only the home of voracious readers. This state has been the mother of the modern American private-eye novel, the birthplace for classic characters from Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade in San Francisco to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in L.A.

Nevertheless, the true cradle of the mystery-writing community, the city with more best-selling crime writers in proportion to the population than anywhere else you can name, is surely Santa Barbara. And 15 mystery writers will gather at Earthling Bookshop on Saturday to celebrate this tradition--but more on that later.

For close to 50 years, from Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer and Brett Halliday's Michael Shayne to Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Santa Barbara has never been without a famous private investigator to call its own.

Author Ron Ely lives in Santa Barbara, as does his fictional P.I. Jake Sands. Michael Collins is the author of the Dan Fortune series--which holds the record as the longest running, still active P.I. saga. Collins moved to Santa Barbara some 20 years ago and brought his protagonist along. For his efforts, he has received an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America and was named a Grandmaster of the Private Eye Writers of America.

Richard Barre, creator of P.I. Wil Hardesty, has yet to use his Santa Barbara home for a setting, because he feels so many others have mined the territory--and done it so well. I know how he feels. I'm glad my P.I. series was already set in Nevada before I moved to the coast, so I didn't have to make the to-use-the-beach-or-not-to-use-the-beach decision.

Writers of best-selling thrillers have thrived in Santa Barbara as well, from Margaret Millar ("Beyond This Point Are Monsters") and William C. Gault to Gerald A. Browne ("11 Harrowhouse, Stone 588") and Allen Folsom ("The Day After Tomorrow"). Gayle Lynds ("Masquerade") writes complex tales of international intrigue that start in Santa Barbara and end in far corners of the world.

Santa Barbaran J.F. Freedman ("Key Witness") has won an Edgar and a Writers Guild award for his work. David Debin and Roger C. Dunham are also active in the genre.

The late Margaret Millar and Ross Macdonald, who lived and wrote in Santa Barbara from the 1940s through the '70s, had more in common than best-selling crime fiction. Ross Macdonald was the nom de mystere chosen by Kenneth Millar because his wife, Margaret, was already so well known when he began to write that he decided to use another name.

This situation has a contemporary echo, but Michael Collins, known to his intimates as Dennis Lynds, was using a pseudonym before Gayle Lynds began writing, so she kept the family surname.

The regular writers' lunch--a practice begun by Ken Millar (among others) about 40 years ago--continues to this day, although in an altered state. According to Dennis Lynds, Millar looked so forward to meeting with his fellow writers every other week that he would spend Monday and Tuesday evenings calling as many as 60 writers, urging them to come to the Wednesday lunch. That biweekly lunch was all male throughout the '60s and even into the '70s. Some speculated that Millar kept it that way so he wouldn't have to invite his wife.

Lynds says that the Millars had a strict policy of noninterference with each other's work. Once, when Maggie had car trouble, she reportedly sat by the side of the road for three hours before calling Ken because she didn't want to interrupt him while he was working. Unlike the Millars, the Lynds are each other's best readers and critics, even though they have written in different traditions. While Santa Barbara may have more than its share of famous writers, Ventura has her own place in the sun with Erle Stanley Gardner. Shortly after I moved to Ventura, I was stopped short by a plaque on an office building at California and Main streets, commemorating Gardner (at the site of his law office) and his character, Perry Mason.

I was about 10 years old when my mystery-loving father took me to hear Gardner speak. All I remember about that evening is what a good time Gardner was having: He made being a mystery writer sound like so much fun!

He also made it sound easy. When someone asked how he came up with his plots, Gardner laughed and said he never worried about plots, because all his plots were the same: A murders B and C gets blamed for it.

I grew up to discover that Gardner was right about the fun part, if misleading about the easy part.

Ventura's best-selling legal thriller tradition was picked up by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, who, unfortunately for the local writing community, has since moved to New York.

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