“City Sagas” (by Kevin Mims)

Essayist and short-story writer Kevin Mims is a frequent contributor to this site. A popular-fiction aficionado—especially when it comes to paperbacks of the late twentieth century—he often provides insight into the intersection and development of genres. That’s certainly true of his post here: The books he references do appear to form their own genre—and it’s one that crosses frequently with the mystery.—Janet Hutchings

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, a pop-fiction genre arose that has never been given a proper appraisal, or even a name. I’m talking about books, most of them written by women, that chronicled the rise of an American city, usually as seen through the eyes of a single family or, in some cases, a single (long-lived) individual. Examples of the genre include Charleston and On Leaving Charleston by Alexandra Ripley (one of the genre’s grandes dames), New Orleans Legacy, also by Ripley, Seattle by Charlotte Paul, Palm Springs by Trina Mascott, Crescent City (one of New Orleans’s many aliases) by Belva Plain, Hers the Kingdom (which dramatized the early years of Malibu, CA) by Shirley Streshinsky, That Wilder Woman (also about Malibu) by Bruce Jay Kaplan, Biscayne (about Miami, FL) also by Kaplan, Days of Valor (which dramatized the rise of Knights Ferry, once the hub of Stanislaus County, CA) by Willo Davis Roberts, Paloverde (which chronicled the rise of L.A.’s mercantile, oil, and filmmaking sectors through the eyes of three generations of the fictional Van Vliet family) by Jacqueline Briskin, Vintage (about Napa, CA) by Anita Clay Kornfeld, Natchez by Pamela Jekel, Savannah (and its three sequels) by Eugenia Price, Maria (a novel about St. Augustine, FL, which spawned two sequels) also by Eugenia Price, Galveston by Suzanne Morris, The Immigrants (a novel about San Francisco, which spawned five sequels) by Howard Fast (fun fact: his brother Julius was the first ever recipient of the Edgar Award from MWA), Mendocino by Judith Greber, and Cape Cod (rather than a city, it covers all of Barnstable County, MA, but still in the ballpark) by William Martin. All of these books were published between the mid 1970s and the mid 1990s.

This genre—which, for the sake of convenience, I’ll call the American city saga—probably owes much of its viability to the success of James Michener’s massive historical sagas of place, the first of which, Hawaii, appeared in 1959. But whereas Michener’s tomes generally cover a vast subject—Texas, Alaska, the Caribbean, Poland, space, etc.—and often stretch thousands, or even millions of years into the past, city sagas tend to be much more tightly focused and compact. Sometimes these sagas cover just one important epoch in the history of a city. Belva Plain’s Crescent City, for instance, covers the years just before, during, and just after the Civil War. Palm Springs, on the other hand, begins in 1912, twenty-six years before the city was incorporated, and ends in 1987, a span of years that saw the area grow from a destination mainly for TB sufferers seeking dry desert air to its current status as a playground for the rich and famous. 

In the late 1980s, Signet books brought out a series of novels called Fortunes West, each of which chronicled the rise of a city in the American west: San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, and Tucson. The books were all credited to A.R. Riefe, an author I can find no information about and suspect was a publishing house pseudonym. The books are generally dull and lacking in style, suggesting they were written by a committee of researchers. The series seems to have been modeled after the more successful Wagons West series, published in the 1970s and 1980s to capitalize on the renewed interest in American history which the country’s bicentennial celebration inspired. Credited to Dana Ross Fuller (a pseudonym for James Reasoner and Noel B. Gerson), most of these books featured the name of an American state followed by an exclamation mark (Oregon!, Utah!, Nebraska!, etc.). I find the novels in series such as Wagons West and Fortunes West, which were clearly dreamed up in some publishing company’s marketing department, far less interesting than those standalone novels that are clearly works of passion by authors with a personal connection to the places they are chronicling. Trina Mascott is a longtime resident of Palm Springs, and her attachment to the city comes through in her novel about the city. Alexandra Ripley was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and her love for the city can be found not only in her novel Charleston, but even in Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind that she was hired to write by the heirs of Margaret Mitchell. Galveston by Suzanne Morris is clearly a passion project written by a Texas native with a deep interest in the history of the Lone Star State. 

City sagas generally have enough going on in their multifarious narratives that fans of just about any literary genre—romance, history, adventure, war, Westerns, etc.—can find something to enjoy in the genre’s best examples. While not all city sagas contain elements of the mystery novel or the crime novel within their pages, there are a number of notable examples that do.

***

NEVADA by Clint McCullough

Don’t be fooled by the title of this 1986 novel. This isn’t a vast historical epic that covers the entire history of America’s thirty-sixth state, from the era when it was populated mostly by its native Paiute, Washoe, and Shoshone tribes, through the years when it was a part of the Viceroyalty of Spain, and then on to its role in the Mexican-American War and its years as a part of the Utah Territory. A better title for this novel might have been A Tale of Two Cities, because the book mainly focuses on the rise of the gaming industry in both Reno and Las Vegas between the years 1920 and 1986. It doesn’t take much knowledge of history to realize that a story about the rise of the Nevada gaming industry is also going to be a story about organized crime. This novel is chock full of mobsters, hit men, protection rackets, and shady business deals. Had it been published in 1969, it might have rivaled The Godfather as the most popular mob novel of the year. Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and plenty of other real-life crooks rub elbows with McCullough’s fictional creations. The main character is Meade Slaughter, a fictional casino magnate who appears to have been at least partially based on real-life casino magnate Bill Harrah. Harrah (1911-1978) was an honest man who managed to thrive in a largely corrupt industry. He was instrumental in the founding of Nevada’s Gaming Control Board in the 1950s, which eventually helped eradicate much of the industry’s corruption and its ties to organized crime. Fortunately for the reader, Meade Slaughter (as his last name suggests) isn’t nearly as squeaky clean as Bill Harrah.

PALM SPRINGS by Trina Mascott

Las Vegas, Nevada, and Palm Springs, California, have a lot in common. Located about 280 miles apart, each is a high-desert community situated in a valley ringed by tall mountain ranges. Neither city is very old. Palm Springs wasn’t incorporated until 1938. (Las Vegas was incorporated in 1911 but remained pretty much a whistle-stop for the Union Pacific Railroad until the state of Nevada legalized gambling in the 1930s.) Both cities draw plenty of celebrity visitors from the film and music industries of Southern California. In fact, so many celebrities have made their homes in these cities that Wikipedia keeps separate pages listing each city’s “notable residents.” Both cities are noted for their mid-century modern architecture. Although not as notorious for its mob links as Las Vegas, Palm Springs has been home to plenty of crime figures. 

Trina Mascott’s 1990 novel Palm Springs mostly avoids mentioning the city’s mob connections. But that doesn’t mean it eschews the topic of crime entirely. Though not as crime-ridden as NevadaPalm Springs has enough misbehavior in it to satisfy most fans of the crime novel. Ginger McKinntock, born in 1900, comes to Palm Springs from San Francisco in 1912. Her mother has just died and her fathert, largely broke, moves to the Coachella Valley because his late wife had inherited some acreage there. Ginger quickly falls in love with Palm Springs. Alas, her father quickly falls in love with a divorcee on the prowl and, after marrying her, moves with her to Pasadena. Unlike her two siblings—sister Ella and brother Neil—Ginger loathes Pasadena and longs to return to the desert. Eventually she will return to Palm Springs. Her family cuts her off financially, but she doesn’t care. She goes to work at the Desert Inn (an actual Palm Springs resort that operated between 1909 and 1967) and gets an education in the hospitality business from the Inn’s owner Nellie N. Coffman, a real-life historical figure. As the years go by, Ginger will become a prominent hotelier in Palm Springs. Her sister Ella will become a famous film star as well as a promiscuous husband-stealer. Brother Neil will become a filthy rich but extremely sleazy businessman. Lots of cocaine and other drugs will be bought, sold, and abused. Lots of kinky (with the emphasis on “kin”) sex will be detailed. The part of the book that crime fans will find most intriguing comes in the second half of the novel when one of the characters decides to have the wealthy girlfriend he lives with kidnapped by associates of his. He is a kept man but is rarely given much money to spend. His associates will grab his girlfriend and hold her in a remote cabin in the Coachella Valley. They will send the mastermind of this plot a ransom note but, with no money of his own, he’ll turn to his girlfriend’s wealthy family for the ransom money, assuring them that she will reimburse them after her safe return. Once he has the money, he and his two associates will divvy it up. The girlfriend will be released and reimburse her family. The mastermind will now have a large nest egg of his own, and nobody will be any the wiser. As you might expect, the plan goes dangerously awry. But even when the characters in Palm Springs aren’t hatching kidnap plans, the story twists and turns like a thriller. 

GALVESTON by Suzanne Morris

This city saga begins on March 1, 1877, and ends on December 26, 1920. Its nearly 500 pages are broken into three sections, each one narrated by a different female character. All three narrators are related by blood to each other, although their kinship is somewhat tangled and mysterious. The final section is narrated by Willa Frazier, the adopted daughter of Houston millionaire Bernard Frazier and his wife, Edwynna. On the eve of her wedding to up-and-coming Houston realtor Rodney Younger, Willa discovers a clue to the identity of her birth mother and then abandons her wedding plans to go off in search of the mother she never knew. This section plays out like a true mystery, with an amateur sleuth who uncovers clues, follows them, and then investigates various players in the mystery surrounding her conception, birth, and adoption. Near the end we get a scene very reminiscent of the conclusions of Agatha Christie novels featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. It’s the drawing-room scene where the detective explains how the murder was committed. In Galveston, the explanation runs for more than fifteen pages and contains decades worth of lurid incidents, including murder, suicide, extramarital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, secret adoptions, arson, a missing diary, and even the poisoning of a beloved dog. And even after all of that, the mystery isn’t completely solved. Willa and her informant must travel back to Galveston before they can tie up all the loose ends and find out what really happened to Willa’s birth mother. And through it all we learn of various fascinating episodes in the history of Galveston, including the fire that destroyed a beloved beach resort and the mega-hurricane of 1900, which killed more than 6,000 Galveston residents and remains the deadliest weather event in the history of the United States.

CAPE COD by William Martin

This may be the most ambitious of all the books under discussion here. The story begins in 1000 AD and concludes in the 1980s. The front pages of the novel contain maps and several helpful family trees. One thread of Martin’s story concerns itself with what may be the very first murder in American history, the death of Dorothy Bradford, twenty-three, a real-life pilgrim who came to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and died mysteriously in November of that year, possibly as the result of foul play (or suicide, or a tragic accident). Her husband, William Bradford, who eventually became governor of the Plymouth Colony, never mentioned her death in the journal he kept, which strikes some historians as suspicious. At any rate, poor Dorothy Bradford’s death is only one of the mysteries set forth in this massive novel. The main focus of the book is the ongoing, centuries-old feud between the Bigelow and Hilyard clans, two Cape Cod families that can trace their lineage directly back to the Mayflower. Another important plot thread concerns the search for the long-lost log of the Mayflower’s master, Captain Christopher Jones.

THAT WILDER WOMAN by Barry Jay Kaplan

Barry Jay Kaplan is a good writer. His novels Black Orchid (cowritten with Nicholas Meyer) and Biscayne are both highly entertaining, but That Wilder Woman (1985) is my favorite of his books. It is a fictionalized account of how Frederick Rindge and his wife, May, acquired the land now known as Malibu, CA, in the late 1800s and fought for decades to see that it remained largely an unspoiled wilderness area. Most of that fight was waged by May alone, for Frederick died young in 1905. In Kaplan’s novel the Rindges are called Emmett and Ada Newcomb.

Ada is the star of this story. She grows up in tiny Desideer, MI, a dreary farming community. Her father abandoned the family when Ada and her younger brother, Obadiah (Obie), were young. Her mother became mentally unstable after that and died a few years later. It was up to Ada to raise her brother and run the household. When Ada’s own schooling ended, she took over the running of the town’s one-room schoolhouse. But she wanted nothing more than to escape dreary Desideer and lead a more adventurous life. Alas, she lacks the wherewithal to pursue this dream. Fortunately, her hometown boasts one genuine celebrity, a female photographer whose work is famous nationwide. A photograph of Ada taken by this photographer somehow manages to appear in a Boston newspaper, where it catches the eye of young Emmett Newcomb, scion of a wealthy family. For health reasons (bad lungs), his doctors have recommended that he move to Southern California, preferably somewhere along the coast. Inspired by Ada’s photo, he decides to take a short detour on the way to California and stop in Desideer, where he asks Ada to marry him and join him on his great adventure. So anxious is Ada to escape that she doesn’t bother playing hard to get for very long. After a courtship of only a few days, Ada agrees to marry Emmett on one condition: after they are settled in California, Emmett must allow her to send for Obie to join them out west. Emmett has no objection to this condition, so off they go.

Alas, young Obie sees Ada’s marriage and departure as the worst of the three abandonments that have defined his life (his father ran off and his mother died young). Angry, he decides not to wait for Ada to send for him. He steals a gun and a horse and heads west. He plans to work his way west by hiring himself out as a cowboy along the way. But his psyche has become warped by all the hardship he has seen, and soon he becomes a murderous psychopath, killing primarily prostitutes (upon whom he is no doubt taking out the anger he feels towards Ada, on whom he has a dangerous and incestuous fixation). His trek west is interrupted by various crime sprees and long stretches in jail. The famous photographer from Desideer writes to Ada and lets her know that Obie left town a wanted man. After that, Ada loses track of him for years.

In California, Emmett finds his Shangri-La, a 13,500-acre ranch located upon the Pacific Ocean just west of Los Angeles. He uses his $200,000 inheritance to buy the place and then he and Ada set about establishing a working cattle ranch, The Malibu, on part of the land. The rest he hopes to leave relatively undisturbed. Sadly, various southern California business interests find it inconvenient having a large track of undeveloped land lying so close to Los Angeles. The Southern Pacific Railroad wants to run a rail line through the property. The state highway commission wants to run a highway through it. Various L.A. merchants want to establish a large shipping port along the coast of The Malibu. And the owners of smaller ranches adjacent to The Malibu want easements over the property so they can water their stock and move them to market. The Newcombs (like the real-life Rindges) find themselves besieged by eminent-domain lawsuits, class-action lawsuits, angry neighbors, opportunistic politicians, and even cattle rustlers. On top of all that are the wildfires that (to this day) plague the area.

So here you have all the elements of a great two-pronged saga. While Ada fights off various legal and natural threats to The Malibu, she is unaware of what is potentially the biggest threat of all—the psychopathic brother she’s lost track of and who, like an avenging angel, is slowly but inexorably moving west, determined to have his revenge against the sister whom he believes is the source of all his troubles in life.

***

Although the heyday of the American city saga has passed, good ones still get published now and then. Honolulu, a 2010 novel by Alan Brennert, is an excellent, fairly recent example of the genre. While not every city saga is filled with criminal activity, most contain at least a soupcon of it. History and mystery are two literary genres that play well together. So why not make your next staycation a trip to Palm Springs or Galveston or Nevada or Cape Cod. You’ll find plenty of rot beneath those beautiful facades.

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4 Responses to “City Sagas” (by Kevin Mims)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    Fascinating, Kevin! I never would have thought to connect these city sagas, but the connection you’ve drawn makes perfect — and very interesting! — sense!

    • Kevinmims says:

      I’m glad you liked it, Josh. There’s a lot more crossovers between the genres than you might think. For instance, Willo Davis Roberts, whose novel Days of Valir, is mentioned in my essay, was a three-time Edgar Award winner. She’s got to be one of the least famous three-time Edgar winners ever, probably because she won the awards for young adult novels. But she also wrote many gothic chillers and straight-out crime novels as well. I just finished reading her crime novel A Long Time to Hate last week. Because most of her work was written for young readers, I thought Long Time to Hate might be kind of tame, but it was as dark and gritty as the best noir novels. I’m working on an essay about her now. She’s just one of several authors who produced both good crime fiction and at least one memorable city saga.

  2. terilynng says:

    Insightful and well-written! I love how you find threads and connections that some (most?) of us miss. Looks as if I need to order a few books now. I think I’ll start with Nevada and Cape Cod. Thank you, Kevin!

    • Kevin Mims says:

      terilynng:

      Nevada, by Clint McCullough is a good choice if you want a lot of crime and action. I enjoyed it a great deal. The downside of that novel, however, is McCullough’s prose. Generally it is workmanlike and efficient, sort of like the writing of a decent newspaper columnist – nothing spectacular, but it does the job. McCullough’s prose is marred by just a couple of serious flaws. He leans heavily on clichéd phrases:

      Mario Gatori knew on which side his bread was buttered.

      Marriage seemed like the icing on the cake.

      Didn’t give us the chance of a snowball in hell!

      We’re not going to cut off our noses to spite our faces!

      On page 497 McCullough writes: Reese came through [the investigations] with flying colors.

      On page 506 he writes: “With the passing of time, and as Reese passed every test with flying colors…”

      I’m not as squeamish about clichés as some literary purists are. After all, plenty of people (myself included) use them frequently in everyday speech, so their appearance in a work of fiction isn’t entirely unwarranted. But even by the lax standards of American mass-market fiction, McCullough’s heavy reliance on clichés is glaring and can get tiresome.

      His second weakness is more technical and it may not bother you. The writing guidebooks refer to this flaw as “describing consecutive actions as though they were concurrent.” Here’s an example from Nevada:

      Tossing off her dress and putting on a garter belt, Gari sat at the edge of the bed and pulled a nylon up over one leg.

      All McCullough had to do to correct this mistake is write, “After tossing off her dress and putting on a garter belt…” But the way he phrases it, Gari seems to be tossing off a dress and putting on a garter belt at the same time as she sits on the bed and pulls up a nylon stocking. Gari’s a talented entertainer but not quite that dextrous.

      Elsewhere he writes:

      Changing, Reese went down to the casino.

      Most likely, Reese did the changing in his hotel room and then went down to the casino, but McCullough describes it as though he did both these things at the same time. These little tics, which occur throughout the book, bother me, but you might not mind them. And, despite these flaws in the prose, the story is still great fun to read.

      Palm Springs by Trina Mascott is generally well written, except when it comes to sex. Mascott, who turned 100 this summer, was 70 when Palm Springs was published. A person born in 1920 didn’t grow up reading many graphic sex scenes in popular novels. The vogue for that kind of thing didn’t really explode until the arrival of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann in the late 1960s. I think it is admirable that a writer of Mascott’s generation made an effort to give her novel the kind of frank sex scenes that were a hallmark of pop fiction in the late 20th Century. Alas, she is pretty awful at it. Here’s an example:

      She could be a purple-assed orangutan for all he cared. All he wanted was to shove his penis into her bloated body and find total bliss.

      Here’s another:

      She longed to be back in his arms. When she imagined kissing him again, she felt as though a miniature elevator were swiftly rising and falling between her groin and her throat, leaving a path of dizzying desire in its wake.

      And one more:

      A sexual thrill grabbed his groin and spread throughout his body.

      If that strikes you as fine writing, then Palm Springs will no doubt dazzle you with its eloquence. Alas, I find those passages laughably awful. Curiously, Mascott actually writes well when she isn’t writing about sex. Her evocations of the Coachella Valley and its dessert landscapes are beautiful. Her description of a deadly flash flood is brilliantly rendered. She writes well about almost everything – except sex. Alas, there is quite a bit of sex in Palm Springs (both the book and, I imagine, the city), so prepare yourself for a lot of ludicrously purple prose (or purple-assed prose). Other than this flaw, I really enjoyed Palm Springs, more so even than I did Nevada.

      Cape Cod by William Martin is an excellent choice. But if you’ve never read Martin before, I recommend starting with his novel Back Bay, another mystery (it involves a search for a silver tea set forged by Paul Revere) that explores an important era in American history and which goes back and forth between the present and the long-ago past.

      Of all the books discussed at length in my essay, Galveston by Suzanne Morris is probably the best written. Her prose isn’t dazzling or showy in the way that mars so much contemporary “serious literary fiction.” It is unfussy and quiet but devastating when it needs to be.

      I hope this helps you make up your mind.

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