With all due deference to Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton — Santa Barbara’s reigning titans of the mystery novel — why do we want to read about murder and mayhem taking place in the fictional town of Santa Teresa when everyone knows it’s really Santa Barbara? For someone who gobbles down murder mysteries the way brown pelicans gulp sardines, I never really got the point of this literary fig leaf. Why shell out big bucks to live in the Garden of Eden if the inhabitants are not allowed to see the snake slither by on occasion? Anne Flett-Giordano is not the first mystery writer seeking to fill this egregious void by calling Santa Barbara “Santa Barbara,” but she is certainly the most recent and probably the most gleefully indulgent when it comes to name-dropping local landmarks.
It should be noted that for two decades, Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins) situated many of his Dan Fortune — the one-armed dick — books unapologetically here, regurgitating high-profile true crime stories to make left-leaning political points about the perils of Paradise. Newton Thornburg not only set his so-grimy-you-have-to-take-a-shower classic, Cutter and Bone, right here in Santa Barbara but also managed to drag the Fiesta parade by the scruff of its neck and rub its face in it. Less well-known but also a lot of fun is Blood Orange, written two years ago by Karen Keskinen, who did unto Solstice what Thornburg did unto Old Spanish Daze.
Jumping into this simmering literary goulash is Flett-Giordano, whose novel Marry, Kiss, Kill seems subliminally (or perhaps sublimely) animated by the spirit of Cyndi Lauper’s 1980s anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” With Flett-Giordano as tour guide, readers get an up-close-and-personal look at greed, betrayal, lust, and especially vanity as manifest by a rogues’ gallery of grotesques for whom extremism in service of self-indulgence has never been a vice.
There is a refreshing absence of sodden self-loathing in Marry, Kiss, Kill, an affliction common to so many explorations of SoCal noir. But then, Marry, Kiss, Kill is way too sunny to be remotely noir. Flett-Giordano writes with a light touch about a Santa Barbara populated to a large extent by financially well-off narcissists looking to get even better off. The book’s chief protagonist, Nola MacIntire, is chief detective for the Santa Barbara Police Department and a former blonde beach babe now approaching the foothills of middle age. And aside from an abiding fixation about the onset of laugh lines, creped skin, and how short a skirt she can sport, MacIntire is remarkably well-adjusted for a detective-story hero or heroine.
By day, Flett-Giordano is an accomplished television screenwriter, having won multiple Emmy awards over the years in service of such shows as Desperate Housewives, Hot in Cleveland, and Frasier. For the past 20 years, she’s lived in Santa Barbara with her husband and two cats while working the salt mines of Hollywood. But when her mother died a few years back, Flett-Giordano needed to cut back her screenwriting hours and decided to try her hand writing a mystery.
Providing the trigger point — for the writing of the book and the plot itself — was the death of Santa Barbara street musician Mason B. Mason, whose loud, booming blues and constant “Hey, pretty lady” commentary about women walking by made him a signature presence on State Street. “He always had something to say,” Flett-Giordano recalled. “Then one day he was gone. He added a lot to Santa Barbara,” she said.
When Mason B. Mason died, there was no suspicion of foul play. But when the character inspired by Mason — a homeless man named Charley — took two expertly placed bullets to the chest, there was no doubt it was murder. By the time Charley’s corpse is cold, Flett-Giordano has already taken us to the Arlington Theatre, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Trader Joe’s, the Courthouse Sunken Gardens, and Paradise Café. Charley’s offense had been overhearing the wrong person saying the wrong thing to the wrong someone else. Other than that, he was strictly collateral damage from a plot sufficiently convoluted to induce whiplash.
Joining MacIntire in figuring it all out is detective Tony Angelotti. Once upon a time, the two wound up in bed but managed to become good friends even so. Both are single, and much of their patter dwells on what is or is not happening in their respective love lives.
Stylistically and spiritually, Marry, Kiss, Kill has a lot more in common with the light-and-frothy comic eco-lather of Carl Hiaasen than the heavy-duty, karmic balloon payments inflicted upon various and sundry unsuspecting sons by all the no-good fathers who populate Ross Macdonald’s moral misadventure. The cover, designed by Santa Barbara’s John Roshell, is a deliberate tip of the hat to Carl Hiaasen’s Double Whammy. Like Hiaasen, Flett-Giordano has devised deliciously outlandish ways of dispatching her villains, in one instance cramming the nozzle of a spray-on tan dispenser down the throat of one with extreme prejudice.
Mary, Kiss, Kill involves an ornate conspiracy to get a mega development approved by the Coastal Commission that somehow also involves a plot to sell biological weapons stolen from Vandenberg Air Force Base, prenuptial agreements, and crooks whose high-end handbags and designer high heels wind up giving them away. Playing a key role throughout is a weekly newspaper disappointingly called the Reader, not The Independent, which is run by publisher named Jillian Crawford and on brief occasion, by her less-than-savory daughter Monica. Almost as disappointing was Flett-Giordano’s decision not to give Roger Durling — the über-ubiquitous head of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in real life — at least a cameo mention.
Why change those names when Flett-Giordano is so generously forthcoming with others? The moral here, I guess, is you can’t have everything. Those who refuse to heed this lesson — at least in the Flett-Giordano’s universe — have a tendency to wind up dead or wishing they were. But for anyone else, Marry, Kiss, Kill is yet another great way to while away an afternoon at the beach.