Santa Cruz Noir
by Kat Bailey
It’s so easy to love Santa Cruz. We wake up every day saturated in beauty and we throw ourselves into it with abandon, hopping onto surfboards or bikes or disappearing into the hills and forests on foot. The weather is perfect, and even our hottest days are soothed by banks of fog that cool us to sleep. There are always delicious foods to eat, concerts and lectures and First Fridays to enjoy, endless books to read, and a brewery on each corner. The Monterey Bay glitters at us from every vantage point in town. Everyone has a dog; everyone looks blissed out. But we pay a lot of money to be here and that high cost of living breeds desperation.
Santa Cruz Noir, an electric, wide-ranging collection of short stories edited by local legend Susie Bright, is a book about the paradox of Santa Cruz, the zen and the gunshots, the perfect waves and their broken riders, the million-dollar houses and the flooded homeless encampments. The book is structured from north to south, beginning with tales of bodies not entirely buried on lonely northern beaches and ending in unforgiving agricultural fields to the south. The stories are also grouped into thematic sections, starting with “Murder Capital of the World”—bloody fever dreams of bad drugs and hitchhiking gone terribly wrong. Fair warning: These stories are as grisly as a good episode of Game of Thrones and just as addictive.
“The Lineup” collects stories about water and the blue serenity of the Monterey Bay that hides a hideous undertow for surfers, boaters, and pinnipeds alike. Anyone who’s strayed in front of the wrong board at Steamer Lane knows the darker side of surfing, but Jon Bailiff’s brilliant and terrifying “Wheels of Justice” shows us just how far down that world can spiral. Another favorite in this chapter is Seana Graham’s delicious “Safe Harbor,” based on the murder of a certain tech executive at the hands of a certain beguiling redhead at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor. We all know the headline, but have you stopped to consider the story? And I can’t stop thinking about Liza Monroy’s “Mischa and the Seal,” a completely unexpected tale about an enigmatic harbor seal and a stolen hotel towel.
Those who have survived the local housing market will appreciate “Good Neighbors,” stories where high rents and property lines collide. Micah Perk’s hilarious “Treasure Island” is terrifically structured as a series of posts on a neighborhood watch website; we’ve all read similar rants by the guy next door who always suspects the worst. Jill Wolfson’s “Death and Taxes” rounds out this section with a heartbreaker about a young man just out of juvenile hall, desperate to redeem himself by being the best sign spinner Mission Street has ever seen.
The final stories are grouped together by their location, ranging along the southern border of Santa Cruz, the land of strawberry fields, semi-affordable housing, and constant, grinding traffic. I loved “Crab Dinners” by Lou Mathews, in which a private investigator working out of the Seacliff neighborhood has an unwise meeting with a very bad man in front of the cement ship. But if forced to play favorites, I would pick Dillon Kaiser’s “It Follows Until It Leads” as the loveliest, saddest story in the book, a Shakespearean tragedy about violence creeping through generations that left me with tears in my eyes.
Some of these stories are calling out for a sequel or even a series. I would give anything for more of Elizabeth McKenzie’s cynical schoolgirl detective, beloved by the local police force, who knows way too much about this town. Perhaps another book is in order? Santa Cruz Noir II? We certainly have more than enough material around here.
Kat Bailey graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a BA in literature and was a bookseller at Bookshop Santa Cruz for 6 years. She now works for Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks.
Tuesday, June 19th, at 7:00
Santa Cruz Noir
Editor Susie Bright and contributors to Santa Cruz Noir will celebrate the publication of their anthology, the latest release in Akashic Books’ award-winning series of original noir stories set in a distinct location.
Expected to appear at Bookshop’s event:
Margaret Elysia Garcia
This article appeared in our 2018 Summer Newsletter.