Mysterious Homes and Gardens
An interview I did about the use of Los Angeles homes and gardens in crime fiction. Paula L. Woods provided the questions.
1. Best description of an interior or garden of an L.A. locale/home you’ve ever read—classic (Chandler, Fitzgerald, West, Himes, MacDonald, Didion) and/or current.
The one that immediately comes to mind comes a few pages into Chandler’s The Big Sleep, where Philip Marlowe is brought to meet General Sternwood:
The path took us along to the side of the greenhouse and the butler opened a door for me and stood aside. It opened into a sort of vestibule that was about as warm as a slow oven. He came in after me, shut the outer door, opened an inner door and we went through that. Then it was really hot. The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.
The butler did his best to get me through without being smacked in the face by the sodden leaves, and after a while we came to a clearing in the middle of the jungle, under a domed roof. Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair …
2. Does one of your mysteries stand out in your mind for its depiction of homes and gardens? If so, which and why? Provide the quote if you can.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not particularly adept at describing residential interiors. (Kind of ironic, since my second lead is an interior designer.) But that’s okay, because I don’t find them particularly useful in my books. When I’m writing a first draft, I don’t want to take the time to describe furniture, etc., and when I go back later it just seems unnecessary. I prefer to just throw out a few details to give the reader a sense of the location. I dislike reading stuff that seems like an inventory of the furniture, and I don’t write what I don’t like to read.
So that leaves gardens. In general, there’s more garden depiction in the first two books. Not surprising, since those had the botanical theme. In particular, there’s one greenhouse scene in Death of an Orchid Lover that I’m particularly fond of, probably because it’s a conscious homage to the Chandler scene above. But when I look over the manuscripts, I find bits in each that make nice little excerpts by themselves. I’ve copied in something from each book below.
From The Cactus Club Killings:
Soon I was winding uphill along a narrow Pacific Palisades road. I turned right onto a long snaky driveway. Halfway up it the native plants gave way to exotic ones. Tree aloes on the left; giant Bosch-esque philodendrons to the right. The puyas, huge terrestrial bromeliads, were all in bloom; turquoise and violet-blue flowers reflected the broken morning light with the sheen of carved wax. Under a huge buttress-rooted ficus dozens of epiphyllum hybrids dangled, bearing a multicolored profusion of flowers, some as big as dinner plates.
I strolled downhill along a curved path lined with rhododendrons and tree ferns, all maintained with tender loving care. Terrestrial orchids and exotic ground covers carpeted the surface below. The walkway opened up into a picturesque clearing. Topiary animals cavorted off to my left; on the right a terraced garden of azaleas and miniature bamboo worked its way back up the hill. Birds twittered and dappled sunlight danced on the ground. I’d been at Final Haven two minutes and already I wanted to be buried there too.
From Death of an Orchid Lover (this is the bit referred to above):
I’d thought when Maureen had said “conservatory” it was a figure of speech. I pictured a hobbyist’s greenhouse, more or less like mine, with fiberglass walls and a wood frame and shade cloth tacked around wherever it would do some good. I wasn’t prepared for the little piece of the Royal Botanic Gardens in the midst of this suburban backyard. It was fifteen feet across, shaped like an octagon, with white-painted walls up to bench level, glass above. Real glass, not some space-age plastic, some clear, some neatly whitewashed to minimize the sun streaming through. The vertical structural elements were painted white too, leading up to a glass roof, with its eight faces sloping up to a point, atop which sat a miniature cupola with a red, green, and yellow pennant flying in the breeze.
I walked down a gravel path to the doorway, pushed it open, peered through. Benches full of orchids lined the periphery. The flowers’ colorful shapes stood out boldly against the white of the wood. Unlike Albert’s greenhouse, or my own, or any other hobbyist’s I’d ever been in, each plant had a bit of breathing room, its own little domain. Like they were being displayed, rather than just grown.
Dottie sat in her wheelchair in the open area in the center of the conservatory, clad in a sweater and a dark blue dress. The chair rested on a small rug, octagonal like the structure, patterned with yellow whirls and loops on a forest green background. Next to Dottie was a tiny table, no more than a foot across, with a china teapot, two dainty cups, and accessories.
From One Last Hit:
Eventually we pulled up in front of a house. It badly needed a paint job and the roof could have used some more shingles. The lawn was half dead and half missing. The only thing not depressing about the place was a monstrous palm tree. Not one of the tall skinny ones like on the TV behind Terry Takamura, thrusting impossibly high into the sky, looking like a good gust would break them in two. This one was no higher than a two-story building. But the trunk must have been five feet across. The fronds stretched the whole width of the lot. Up near the top a whole garden of other plants had taken root among the bases of the fronds.
From The Manipulated:
A set of French doors led to a big back yard. I tried one, found it unlocked, let myself out. The yard was filled with cacti and the like. A couple of gigantic prickly pears. A year or two before I would have been able to tell you the species. Now it was lost among the other detritus filling my head. There were several big cereus, still bearing the previous summer’s fruits. Four or five mature agaves. Lots of smaller plants too, in the ground and in pots scattered everywhere, on the concrete and on benches and hanging. There was a rose garden too, a dozen or so plants, some still in bloom.
The showpiece was the biggest saguaro I’d ever seen. As tall as the house, with a couple of arms giving it the characteristic shape you see in every Western, whether or not it takes place in Arizona.
3. How do you get your inspirations for describing homes and gardens? Your house? Friends’, family’s? Magazines? Open houses? Other? Are they always in L.A., or have you used a favorite place in another city to substitute for the City of Angels?
Usually I make this stuff up out of whole cloth. I may have a vague image of some house I’ve seen while traveling around the city, but I seldom consciously mimic any particular garden. One exception is the first bit above from Cactus Club—that uphill road with the native vegetation giving way to the exotic. That was very closely based on the property of one of the members of the succulent club I belonged to when I wrote the book. I rarely look at garden articles in magazines, and I can’t think of any location from another city I’ve ever used even in part. There is, though, a big greenhouse/conservatory in Vancouver that I’m tempted to work in someday.
4. Given the big issues in mystery novels that you have to address (character, plot, dialog, setting), how important are settings to your work? Are there any classic writers who you think about when you’re establishing settings, especially homes and/or gardens?
I think settings are important in my work, but it’s more an overall setting than a specific location. I like to exploit the varied nature of Los Angeles—from the mansions to the hovels, from the botanicas to the record companies. And I like to use these locations, but I try to indicate their nature more by small clues scattered throughout a scene than through any big chunk of description. That way they tend not to get in the way of the story’s movement. So, “He stubbed out his cigar in an ornate ashtray atop an ancient Formica table,” rather than, as the scene is introduced, “Between the overstuffed sofa and the strangely spare chair stood a Formica table with corrosion-spotted legs, and on top of that table was an ashtray, clear crystal with bits of green glass scattered throughout.”
The only classic writer I’m ever conscious of is Chandler, and that’s more for overall feel than for any specifics. I’ll freely admit that I’m ill-read in most of what came before 1950.
5. Do you prefer describing exteriors vs. interiors? Explain your preference, if any, and the values of including each in your novels.
I suppose I’ve more or less answered this above. To the extent that I do extended description, it generally seems to be outdoors, or indoor/outdoor locations like Dottie’s greenhouse. I suppose this preference is simply because I’m better at it. Also, while I see the value of each, I think that once the reader’s seen an exterior they automatically form an image of what the interior looks like. You see a shack, you get one image; you see a mansion, you get another. Unless the interior’s a lot different from what the outside would have you expect, why waste time tampering with the reader’s readymade picture? (I’ll point out that this is not some longstanding theory of mine, but rather something I just came up with.)
6. What are you trying to achieve when you describe your protagonist’s home or garden? When you describe that of a victim, witness, suspect or other character?
When I describe Joe Portugal’s home, I do it as part of illuminating his character. Since I write in first person, it’s tough to say anything more than what Joe would naturally think about part of his house. So he talks about the sofa and the dining room table, but neither of these has ever received the slightest bit of description. What do we know about his bedroom? After four books, we know there’s a bed and a couple of nightstands with a lamp shaped like an Oriental figure on one, and that the sliding closet door is covered with a mirror (a detail I grabbed from my own house). To Joe, his living space is there for him to live in, not to notice. I suppose if I ever write a book from Gina’s point of view I’d have a lot more interior description, given her occupation.
When I describe someone else’s home (or garden), I’m still trying to point out what Joe might find notable, while giving clues about the character. So with the Pacific Palisades roadside garden from CCK, I’m touching on the fact that the guy who lives there thinks nothing of landscaping a whole hillside with big fancy plants; and when Joe arrives at the top of the hill, the guy’s greenhouse is bigger than the cabin he lives in. In The Manipulated, I deliberately gave an actress character an apartment in a building just a few down from that of another actress character in Orchid Lover, because when I was an actor I visited so many hopefuls’ apartments and they had a very common look and feel. (As a bonus, I discovered in the writing that the two knew each other and used that to illuminate the new one’s character.)
7. Are your characters’ homes windows into their souls? Can you think of one of your mysteries where that’s the case?
I don’t think of homes in those terms, and I really can’t come up with a good example. I suppose Dottie with her greenhouse comes about the closest, especially because as Joe passes through the house on his way back there he sees her Wedgwood collection and World War Two photos of her deceased husband and I felt I’d kind of summed up her life.
8. When do you sacrifice a description in the service of plot, moving the story along?
When the reader’s been led to believe a significant discovery is about to be made I’ll keep description to an absolute minimum. Just one telling detail, perhaps, as Joe enters. In The Manipulated, as the victim is found, I throw in bits about the room he’s found in, the rug he’s found on, to highlight the luxury in which he lived and now died.
9. Any concerns about protecting the privacy issues of residents’ homes when you’re writing a description?
As I mentioned, I seldom base anything on a real location. In the rare case I do, I’m confident the owner would feel flattered rather than threatened. I’d never give away where a real person lives. I’ve said several times that Joe lives on Madison Avenue in Culver City, but have been careful not to say exactly where (though I know which house it is), in case someday I suddenly get a huge readership and people start cruising the street.
10. Ed McBain once told a story about using an address in Manhattan for a brothel and almost being sued by the elderly owner, who was inundated with “visitors.” Any funny or cautionary tales regarding using locations in a mystery you’d care to share?
Not funny or cautionary, but a bit of writer indulgence. I’ve never told anyone this before. Gina lives (at least in the first three books) in a West Hollywood condo building called Ten Forty Havenhurst. That address (without the fancy spelled-out number) is one Raymond Chandler lived at for a while. I also placed a church in Orchid Lover at an address he lived at. (I suppose I’m fixated on Chandler; I named a couple of characters in the new book Lennox after Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye.)
11. Do you have a dream location you’d like to use in one of your books, or that provide you with inspiration?
The locations that tend to inspire me are natural ones, on the varied beaches of Southern California, where I’ve set several scenes. But my dream location is the Getty Center. I wrote a scene there for The Manipulated; the plotline got cut, but I’m reusing it in the next book and intend to expand on the Getty’s part in the book.