Since its Presidio beginnings, Europeanized Santa Barbara has played temporary host to remarkable writers like Richard Henry Dana, Aldous Huxley, and Edwin Wilson. Others, such as Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald), Margaret Millar, and T.C. Boyle found here not only hideaways, but material, too, creating stories about sleuths, saints, and sinners living the high life between downtown’s blinding white surfaces and Montecito’s cool hedges. They found metaphors in both nature and architecture, as well: exploring the specific joys and pains of a paradise with lots of artificial features built on an ancient people’s ransacked lands. The 10 books listed below — some gumshoe, all dazzling — turn escapism into insightfulness and explore the town’s enchantments and fatal illusions.
Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg
This great, memorable 1970s thriller sharply evokes the city and neatly finesses its corrupt dynamic of rich landowners among the people that live to serve them, whether they wish to or not. It’s a richly textured, sometimes violent tale of two cities — made into the fine film Cutter’s Way.
The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
The children’s classic about an indigenous girl who lived by herself on San Nicolas Island is based on a true story of more tragic circumstances, but is nonetheless written with such finely wrought detail that generations identified this town by their encounter with the book: a rich mythology that mesmerizes adults and children alike.
Sleeping Beauty by Ross Macdonald
Macdonald was a direct literary descendant of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (and gave literary birth to Sue Grafton) but set his stories in our disenchanted kingdom between Los Angeles and San Francisco — this one incorporates the oil spill of 1969 and Isla Vista hippies, too. The city is beautiful, criminal, and a site of disasters. Home.
Banshee by Margaret Millar
She often outshined her more famous mate at least with elements of surprise. Her stories had no constant protagonist and swung freely, bordering sometimes on the experimental while remaining compulsively readable. This novel is set in a coastal city of avocado orchards turning into a community of tragedy: powerful, sly, and strange-mood-inducing.
Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn
The dramatic 1982 debut novel by Irvine writing program wizard Kem Nunn proved that all the hype about him was right. This biker/surfer/druggie adventure only ends up in Santa Barbara, but its locales such as Hollister Ranch and Santa Claus Lane are definitive and bursting with street poetry. Great writing, too.
Abandon: A Romance by Pico Iyer
Part-time resident and full-time multicultural visionary, Iyer sets a romantic quest novel in Santa Barbara inhabited by nominally disparate elements found in one world — a beautiful California girl and a lost Sufi manuscript. The city, which Iyer has known since childhood, holds its own against the tide of crossable cultures.
Riven Rock by T. C. Boyle
Based on the criminally crazy state of Cyrus McCormick’s deranged son Stanley, who suffered from a pathological hatred of women and was confined to his estate in Montecito, Boyle’s historical novel avoids any large metaphorical truths but has a keen obsession with psychiatry as it was practiced and the inherent injustice of how justice is served to the rich.
A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
The alphabet detective debuted here with an adventure set in S.B. disguised as Santa Teresa, the city pseudonym used by the Millars in their great previous generation of mystery ink. The series proved endurably popular and, if nothing else, established a female detective’s right to bear and use arms.
The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
That other S.B. disaster-in-the-background Lew Archer tale—this time it’s the Coyote Fire and a plot including real skeletons. Many mystery enthusiasts consider it Macdonald’s best.
Santa Barbara Stories edited by Steven Gilbar
Okay, we cheated, but this collection’s short stories are all set in Santa Barbara, written by accomplished and famed writers who you wouldn’t ever suspect had crossed paths with the city on the Channel, like John Sayles and Nicholson Baker. They did and the results are memorable and often happily disconcerting.