At home in the dark

Susan Straight lives in Riverside and is the author of six novels, most recently "A Million Nightingales."

Edgar. He's sitting here at my desk now, looking not frightening or tell-tale but rather plaintive, reticent and melancholy. He's ceramic, of all things for an awards statuette, his face painted pure white, his brows, eyes and mustache six Picasso slashes of black and his cape cerulean blue. Who in the world makes this bust of Edgar Allan Poe, given out every year in New York City by the Mystery Writers of America? The 62nd annual banquet was earlier this month, and I imagine it has to be a factory nearby, not in China or Mexico, but a dark and gritty place behind a sooty facade laced by black fire escapes.

I was 16 when I wrote my first short story, which featured a dead body. I had been banished to Riverside City College summer school by my mother, who knew all my friends were using or selling drugs and getting drunk every night. I was by far the youngest person in the creative writing class, taught by the wonderful and patient Bill Bowers, who actually loved the desert and, unbeknownst to me, crime and noir fiction. I wrote lyrical scenes of a place called Hurkey Creek, a campground in the San Jacinto Mountains: A girl wanders up the creek with its mossy rocks and icy water, lizards with sapphire throats and blue jays with black helmets. The girl finds a lovely waterfall with a dead man floating beneath it.

Bowers made a few bemused comments.

The second story featured the desert, including glittering mica, Gila monster lizards with orange-beaded skin and a dead body found at the end.

This time, he took me aside and asked if I had problems at home.

I couldn't explain to him that the only novels in my house were my father's Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum thrillers and six years' worth of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, which I consumed immediately upon their arrival. The best parts of those tomes were the mysteries -- Dorothy Uhnak's New York City, with a sniper shooting in Central Park's Sheep Meadow, was the most lasting vision I took away.

I just told him I'd try to write something in which people stayed alive, and I did.

I won an Edgar this year for my short story "The Golden Gopher," which was part of the "Los Angeles Noir" volume of the wonderful series published by Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. When I agreed to write a story for the anthology, I first read all the previous titles I could find -- "Brooklyn Noir," "San Francisco Noir," "Baltimore Noir," "D.C. Noir" and "Manhattan Noir." Everything I love about the mystery genre is perfectly encapsulated in these moody collections -- noir writers are best at giving readers a landscape and a specific place to move through and characters who are vivid and helpful and odd and suspicious. Noir means that place is vital, as in where the crime occurred and how it matters, and character is essential, as in who did what to whom and how. These are lessons I needed to learn again.

In 1996, while in a Berkeley bookstore signing my novel "The Gettin Place," which links the Tulsa Riot of 1921 and the L.A. Riots of 1992, I met a sociology professor who told me only mystery writers truly delineate and fully imagine America's often overlooked landscapes. He taught a class using only mysteries, and told me mine would be joining the syllabus.

It was one of the most gratifying things anyone has ever said to me, and I felt that way during the Edgars, when I watched the convivial, joking mystery writers pay tribute to one another and realized how many of their books I've loved. The propulsive plots, the dialogue, the intricate detail of murders and clues and geography. What Edgar Allan Poe did -- frighten us while fascinating us, digging deep at the part inside us that we recognize even in those awful characters -- is what mystery writers still do.

The Golden Gopher is a bar in downtown L.A. When I told the book's editor, Denise Hamilton, where I'd set my story, she gasped. Her father-in-law had run a doomed Mexican restaurant two doors down, and the bar was once such a dangerous and seedy place that dead bodies were seen carted out, she told me. Her husband recalled the bar's patrons and the danger he saw as a child. She couldn't imagine that anyone else in the world knew this bar.

The place is hipster cool now, reconfigured, but I saw it as a bar where a homeless man might confess a murder he committed in the name of loving the most beautiful woman he'd ever known. Washing the gleaming black tile of the club's entrance, he can't forget his past. Ebony tile. Noir. I stood in front of the place and thought of the word -- French for black. I had spent the previous year studying Le Code Noir, the 1724 laws governing slave conduct in Louisiana, while writing about the beautiful freed-slave ancestor of that beautiful woman. This man, now wandering the streets of downtown with thousands of other men with hair like black coral or silver staples and hearts full of death and regret and confusion -- he thought he loved her, and that he would save her by bashing in the delicate skull of someone else.

When writers look at why people kill each other, or steal or rob or maim or cheat each other, it is for money or land or love, and often what someone thought was love. In New York, I was astonished that I was in the company of those mystery writers because I had chosen to write not about blood and guts but about sadness and melancholy and regret over a murder committed passionately for the wrong reasons. Now I look at Edgar's downcast, black-brushed eyes and hope to write something dark and noir again, something to take readers into places and souls where they might never otherwise dare to venture. *

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