April 19, 2017

The Ten Best Santa Barbara Novels

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Life in the land of exhausted beauty. We asked A&W author D.J. Palladino to pick his ten favorite novels set in his hometown of Santa Barbara, which is the location for his own novel, Nothing That Is Ours:

From its ancient Presidio past to the present, Santa Barbara has often played temporary host to remarkable writers: Richard Henry Dana, Aldous Huxley, and Edwin Wilson to name a few. Other novelists, like Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, and Kenneth Rexroth, lived there most of their lives. But only a handful have used the town as a setting for their work, most often as a backdrop for sleuths and sinners loitering behind white stucco Montecito walls. The best of these, however, have dug deeper to explore the haunting idea of exhausted beauty—that people who live in Paradise have to struggle as hard as those on the mean streets of Los Angeles and New York to survive. The following ten books, some of them gumshoe, all of them dazzlingly written, remind us that even in a town like Santa Barbara, the brighter the sun, the darker the shadows.

1) Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg

This great and utterly memorable 1970s thriller sharply evokes the city and neatly finesses the dynamic of rich landowners and the people who live to serve them, whether they want to or not. It’s a richly-textured, sometimes violent tale of two cities—made into the fine film Cutter’s Way.

2) The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

This children’s classic about an indigenous girl living alone on nearby Saint Nicholas Island is based on a true story and creates a rich mythology that mesmerizes adults and children alike. It is written with such finely wrought detail that generations of readers have come to identify the real Santa Barabara with the one they encounter in the book: 

3) The Sleeping Beauty by Ross Macdonald

Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar, was a direct literary descendant of Chandler and Hammett but set his Lew Archer stories in the enchanted kingdom between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This book includes the oil spill of 1969 and Isla Vista hippies, too. This Santa Barbara is beautiful, criminal, and prone to disaster. 

4) Banshee by Margaret Millar

Millar often outshone her more famous husband, at least when it came to elements of surprise. She had no constant protagonist and her prose often bordered on the experimental while remaining compulsively readable. This novel is set in a coastal city of avocado orchards becoming more a community tragedy than a whodunit: Powerful, sly and strange mood-inducing.

5) Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

The dramatic 1982 debut novel by Irvine writing-program wizard Kem Nunn proved that all the hype about him was true. This biker/surfer/druggy adventure ends up in Santa Barbara, and locales like Hollister Ranch and Santa Claus Lane in nearby Carpinteria are definitive and bursting with street poetry. 

6) Abandon: A Romance by Pico Iyer

Part-time resident and full-time multicultural visionary, Iyer sets this romantic quest novel in Santa Barbara, where an ex-pat Englishman searches for both a beautiful California girl and a lost Sufi manuscript. The city, which Iyer has known since childhood, holds its own against the tide of cross-polllinating cultures.

7) Riven Rock by T. C. Boyle

Based on inventor and industrialist Cyrus McCormick’s criminally deranged son Stanley, who suffered from a pathological hatred of women and was confined to his estate in Montecito, Boyle’s historical novel avoids any large metaphorical truths but has a keen obsession with psychiatry as it was practiced in the early 1900s and the inherent injustice of how justice is served to the rich.

8) A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton

The alphabet detective debuted with her first adventure set in Santa Barbara disguised as Santa Teresa, the city pseudonym used by the Millars in their SB novels. The series has proved itself endurably popular, and, if nothing else, established a female detective’s right to bear and use arms.

9) The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

That other Santa Barbara disaster-in-the-background Lew Archer tale—this time it’s the Coyote Fire and a plot that many mystery enthusiasts consider Macdonald’s best.

10) Santa Barbara Stories

Okay, we cheated, but this collection of short stories, edited by Stephen Gilbar, is set in Santa Barbara and written by accomplished and famed writers whom you wouldn’t ever suspect had crossed paths with the Citty on the Channel, like John Sayles and Nicholson Baker. They did, and the results are memorable and often happily disconcerting.


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