I had worked as a small-time reporter on the United States-Mexico border at about that time. Not as a gumshoe, but not dissimilar. The paper was The San Diego Reader. When I arrived there from England, inexperienced, arrogant, penniless, I had no idea where I was. For my first assignment I was sent to the Sycuan Indian casino in El Cajon, where I won $2,000 on the Crazy Bow Tie bingo game televised live from Oklahoma City. It was larger than any check I had ever received from a publisher in London, and I began to wonder if California was really where I was meant to be. Among the books stacked in my 1940s Hillcrest apartment were the seven Chandler novels, which I repeatedly reread because they now seemed so much less fantastical. Above, the shrill blue sky of our little nightmares; below, the San Diego canyons among which Chandler was now buried.
Thereafter I was dispatched to places like Mexicali, Sonoyta and Tijuana to report on illegal immigration, local crime and the occasional lucha libre wrestling tournament. Then further afield to Mexico City to take the coyote buses that leave from the Terminal Central to the northern border. I learned Spanish, and moved to Baja for a while. But inevitably things went south in more metaphorical ways.
On one assignment I was sent to do a nocturnal police ride-along in the gang-infested desert town of El Centro, right on the border, a place straight out of “Touch of Evil.” I misspelled the name of a cinema over whose roof I reported clambering with a rookie cop while holding his shotgun, and the mayor hauled me in for a blistering rebuke, after which I was fired for misrepresenting “the community.” I think it was fair enough. I also now had a setting that I would never use creatively until Ed Victor made his call: the landscapes of the Anza-Borrego, the half-dead settlements of the Salton Sea, where occasionally I reported stories of con men or real-estate shenanigans, and, of course, the long mapless journeys by bus around Mexico that never had a logical beginning or end.
The Hotel Portales in Colima, the Salton Sea and the saloon bars of El Centro and Mazatlán: These were flyblown places that all remained internally fossilized. But with the excuse of a genre outing, an impersonation of another writer, I found these places suddenly liberated from their bedrock. Far from being an impersonal pastiche of a distant time, my Marlowe novel, “Only to Sleep,” became, during the writing, an act of memoir. Those places came back to life.
What I remembered most from those years on the road was the absoluteness of the loneliness. Every day you wash up alone in some bar or restaurant and take your beer among strangers, talking insanely to yourself, looking out on to squares and streets you don’t know, and then the following day you climb into a bus going somewhere you haven’t yet quite figured out and move in to another bar and restaurant with the same beer and the same flies and the same strangers. I used to think it was a particular kind of madness to which I was prone. But you can’t spend so much time doing what I did for no reason. It must answer a yearning that has no prospectus. All this passed into my Marlowe.