The Santa Ana winds came last winter not long after I'd moved here. I grew up on the edge of a Great Lake (Erie is arguably, yes, the least great of the Great Lakes, but who's judging?). And so I knew about wind: The terrible icy blasts that cut right into your bones, the autumnal gusts that make the leaves dance, the whimsical puffs that always seem to sneak up on a day you're wearing a miniskirt and clutching a pile of paperwork. But I'd never felt anything like this.
And yet I remembered these winds.
It was Raymond Chandler, of course. The L.A. writer whose work I devoured all through my adolescence, the man who perfected detective fiction, had written about the Santa Anas, in one great paragraph kicking off his 1938 novella Red Wind — arguably, yes, one of the greatest opening paragraphs of all time:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge
That's the kind of opening that makes you want to quit writing forever: It's impossible to describe a Santa Ana wind better than Chandler did it in 1938.
Reading Joseph Lapin's praise for Empty the Sun this week reminded me, once again, just how many great L.A. novels there are — from Chandler, from Didion, even from, as Lapin suggests, up-and-comers like Joseph Mattson. Perhaps that's because Los Angeles is so complicated, because so many of us are trying to make sense of this sprawling city at the end of the continent. Perhaps it's because Hollywood has long drawn so many good writers (even if it doesn't always know how to use them).
In the coming months, our team of writers and freelancers will take on 32 of the most iconic L.A. novels. We've paired them against each other in an NCAA-style tournament, grouped by theme:
The Hollywood Region (Of course!)
The Rebels & Outcasts Region
The Noir Region
The Lost Souls Region
The goal is to pick four regional winners and then watch them duke it out in the Final Four — and, ultimately, decide on just one as the greatest of all time.
We plan to publish new installments weekly, starting with the first match-up: They Shoot Horses, Don't They vs. The Day of the Locust. Bookmark this link to our series, and you'll never miss one. We encourage you to read along and weigh in via our Comments section.
And if you find yourself shaking your fist because we've somehow neglected one of your favorites, well, take heart. As it turns out, even Raymond Chandler's Red Wind didn't make the cut. It might have one of the greatest opening paragraphs of all time, but with competition this fierce, even one of the greatest isn't good enough.