Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sleep With Strangers, by Dolores Hitchens

I first got on to this book a couple of months ago when reading about it on Peter Rozovsky's blog, Detectives Without Borders. Peter was reading it in preparation for a panel he was doing at Bouchercon this year called "Beyond Chandler, Hammett and Spillane: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras". Although I was planning on and indeed did attend this (excellent) panel, I was intrigued by this particular book from the get go because of its Long Beach setting. This was not only because of the fact that this year's Bouchercon took place there, but because I have been particularly interested in Long Beach since realizing that our family has had a connection to the area because of a small oil lease on Signal Hill my grandfather purchased in the twenties. Or at least that's when I suspect he purchased it, based on research I did on Signal Hill for another blog.

A lot of the action of this book does in fact take place on Signal Hill and I couldn't say it paints a very romantic picture, based on the description of thick black oil sumps, the stink of escaping vapors and the noisy oil pumps. Written in 1956, the book describes an era halfway between the twenties and our own. Amazingly, people still lived in small houses amidst all this noisy, dirty extraction. The story opens, though, with a young woman named KayWanderley staring out into the Long Beach rain from her family's mansion at something lying on the porch swing. She is waiting for the private detective Jim Sader to show up and help her find her missing mother. Sader's search leads not just to Signal Hill but to other parts of Long Beach as it was in that era, including an amusement park by the water where one of the characters runs a concession where, for 25 cents, you can "Give the Pigs a Slide". These are real pigs, whom the concessionaire keeps locked up in his house so that they won't fall into the oil sumps nearby.

The book is full of odd little things like that. Although Hitchens was prolific, and even wrote under various pseudonyms, by most accounts, the two Jim Sader books are the ones that stand out. I have only read the one, but it is very atmospheric and well written. It reminded me a bit of Dorothy Hughes work of  roughly the same time period.

I found it particularly interesting to contemplate this older Long Beach as I stayed for a few days in downtown Long Beach with its high end hotels, its little tourist shop area on the water, with the smoke stacks of the Queen Mary peeking out on the far side.

 No pigs for a quarter there, I'm thinking.

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