I grew up on a farm. In California. Yes, there are farms in California. Lots of them. You wouldn’t know that from reading crime fiction because of the fact that 89% of California crime fiction takes place in either Los Angeles or San Francisco. (You can do the calculations yourself, but rest assured, I painstakingly triple-checked this very accurate percentage, so there’s no reason for anyone to waste their time scrutinizing this completely real statistic that I didn’t make up.)
California is a big state with incredible diversity. Believe it or not, there are even whole other cities and towns besides LA and San Francisco. Some of them, you may have even heard of. The state also has forests and deserts and mountains and even islands. It’s not all Hollywood Boulevard. And to be honest, Hollywood Boulevard isn’t really Hollywood Boulevard. Unless you’re looking to score. In which case, it is.
If you’re interested in exploring the rest of the Golden State from your most comfortable chair, I’ve put together a short list of crime novels for you to consider.
Important caveat: My definition of “crime novel” is very broad.
Second important caveat: I really like the word “caveat.”
SUDS IN YOUR EYE by Mary Lasswell (1942)
While Matt Coyle’s Yesterday’s Echo and the other books in the Rick Cahill series could easily represent San Diego, I have a gigantic soft spot for Lasswell’s raucous comic novel. It was a huge influence on my early books. Crime doesn’t have to be murder. Three older women opening up an illegal drinking establishment in their home is certainly a crime. Still laugh-out-loud funny and ahead of its time, I encourage everyone to find a copy of this rowdy, drinky, and fighty book. The follow-up books featuring the memorable characters of Mrs. Feeley, Mrs. Rasmussen, and Mrs. Tinkham are just as good. There’s even a cookbook.
DESERT TOWN by Ramona Stewart (1946)
Most people are more likely to know the movie adaptation of this novel, Desert Fury, than the book, but even that’s not widely seen. While Cain’s Postman might have been a more obvious noir choice to represent the era, there are so many hidden gems I prefer to highlight. Stewart’s classic noir is a novel that deserves its place among its contemporaries. Set in the fictional Chuckawalla (a dead ringer for Barstow), it captures the California desert and a town ready to boil over. Pick it up for the dialogue alone.
FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner (1969)
The least crimey of the crime novels on this list, but damn if it isn’t one of my favorite books. The city of Stockton is as much of a character as any person in this book. Arguably one of the best boxing novels ever written, the story follows two fighters: one at the beginning of his journey, the other toward the end. It’s the heart of working class fiction, from the onion fields to the boxing ring and should be on every reader’s shelf. The John Huston adaptation of the book might also be the best boxing movie ever made.
CUTTER AND BONE by Newton Thornburg (1976)
It was a tough call not to include a Sue Grafton book to represent Santa Barbara, but there’s something about Thornburg’s book that I keep coming back to. While the whole story doesn’t take place in Santa Barbara (although the movie adaptation does), the coastal city acts as the jumping-off point and sets the tone. With a mystery at its center, it’s more of an afterthought, with the book’s strengths being the portraits of Richard Bone and his friend Cutter, their pain, and the way they manage and mismanage it.
TAPPING THE SOURCE by Kem Nunn (1984)
I don’t know if this is the first “surf noir” book, but it’s one of the high points of the sub-genre. Working just as effectively as a coming-of-age story, we follow Turner, a young boy, looking for his sister among the surfers of Huntington Beach. The movie Point Break took liberally from this altogether unique read. It beautifully and unapologetically captures the surf culture of the Orange Coast. Nunn’s Pomona Queen and Tijuana Straits could have easily made this list, as well.
BURIED ONIONS by Gary Soto (1997)
For being the fifth largest city in California, Fresno gets very little attention from the literati. Luckily Gary Soto has been a strong voice for the region. This book might be marketed as YA, as many of Soto’s books are suitable for a wide age range, but it doesn’t flinch on its portrayal of the working class of Fresno and the challenges of growing up in the Central Valley. Gang violence and crime challenge our 19 year-old hero Eddie as he tries to navigate a community with close ties and bad blood.
NOBODY MOVE by Denis Johnson (2009)
There are books that I read and my first reaction is “Damn, the author had a blast writing this.” That energy carries into the reading experience. Johnson’s quick novel is a rip-roaring neo-noir that feels a little like pastiche, but is so well-paced and fun that it’s hard not to like it. More than that, it uses Bakersfield for all that the city will give it. Even for many Californian’s the Central Valley is a place that you drive through between destinations. Bathroom and fast food stops only. And to be honest, Johnson gives us a few reasons why that might not be a bad idea.
DECANTING A MURDER by Nadine Nettmann (2016)
People come to Napa Valley for the wine, so it makes sense that a mystery novel set in Napa Valley would be about wine. Nettmann’s charming traditional mystery not only has a good puzzle at its center and fun characters, I probably learned more about wine and wineries than in all my years drinking marked-down store-brand box wine. Okay, that’s not saying a lot, but every chapter begins with a wine pairing. And that’s just genius.
WONDER VALLEY by Ivy Pochoda (2017)
I cheated a little here, as a considerable amount of this novel is set in Los Angeles. But I’m such a fan of Pochoda’s work that I was willing to bend the nonexistent rules that I made for myself. Plus, as a desert rat myself, I wanted more desolation represented. She nails something about Twentynine Palms and the area around it that isn’t easy to capture. Not just the heat and the isolation, but what that does to the people. This complex literary crime novel is well worth the read. And while you’re at it, pick up These Women which is equally fantastic.
COLDWATER by Tom Pitts (2020)
I’m going to admit it. Sacramento has never been my favorite place. I have my reasons, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great setting for a book. I don’t like LA all that much either. In Tom Pitts’s most recent novel, he’s taken the sleepier suburban elements of the state capital and added squatters to the mix. A complex crime story that combines suspense with intimate character portraits. More people should be reading Pitts’s books.