'True Detective' and the Shady History of California Noir

How the show's new season draws on everything from Chandler to 'Chinatown'

Colin Farrell in 'True Detective' and Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown.' Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO; Everett

There are few more evocative first lines in 20th-century American literature than that of James M. Cain's 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," begins the book's narrator, an amoral drifter named Frank Chambers. He soon finds himself near a roadside sandwich joint called the Twin Oaks Tavern, a spot that, Chambers says, is "like a million others in California." But bad things happen at this rural little diner — things like adultery, kinky sex and first-degree murder. The book's sinister series of events winds up being Chambers' undoing; not surprisingly, Hollywood would end up seeing those same salacious, fatalistic situations as the perfect source material for numerous film adaptations. But more importantly, Cain's pulp masterpiece would also end up laying the groundwork for the several decades' worth of California noir and detective fiction that followed in its wake.

Now the latest addition to the genre is upon us: the second season of HBO's hit crime-anthology series True Detective, which takes the first season's Bayou-based metaphysical machismo and drops it into in various parts of the Golden State, including the kinds of small-town stretches that were once home to joints like the Twin Oaks. Long before last night's premiere introduced us to the show's new lineup of conflicted cops, crooked officials and real-estate–obsessed criminals, creator Nic Pizzolatto had promised that the series' sophomore outing would be situated in "the places that don't get much press and where you wouldn't normally set a television show," including the sparse SoCal industrial town of Vernon (known, in the show, as Vinci).

So what is it that continually draws writers and filmmakers like Pizzolatto to keep going back to both the region's cities and its sparsely inhabited expanses? The answer is not as simple as proximity to Hollywood, though that's certainly a factor; the roots of the California detective story and its noirish crime-lit counterparts actually go back decades, to the notion of a state shrouded in promise and veiled with disappointment during World War I, the Prohibition era and the Great Depression.

The last hit particularly hard in California in the 1930s, especially among the middle-class in the southern part of the state. Those frustrated everyday folks, wrote City of Quartz author Mike Davis, became "the original protagonists of that great anti-myth usually known as noir." This is what inspired Cain's dark tales of murder and betrayal; it also served as grist for the mill of Raymond Chandler's eloquent and haunting Los Angeles–based Philip Marlowe novels like The Big Sleep, and Dashiell Hammett's brutal NorCal crime opus Red Harvest. These books revolved around the notion that California's allure, like everything else, is basically illusory — as essayist Edmund Wilson once noted, the locale was an expansive, picturesque and ultimately empty place.

"California is the golden dream, the end of the rainbow manifest destiny chased for a century," says Charles Ardai, founder of the pulp and crime-fiction publisher Hard Case Crime. "But when you got there, the gold turned out to be tin, and the dreams soured and died. It's this tension between the romance and the reality that underlies all noir detective fiction."

It's also likely that it will be the underlying theme of True Detective's new season, given that the catalyst that kicks off the story proper is a body found near Big Sur — a corpse in the middle of heartbreakingly beautiful land off the coast. But the contrast between the milk-and-honey dream and the dour, hardbitten reality has been the core theme of almost all California noir since it began. You see it in those first wave of books and the short stories published in pulp magazines like Black Mask that use the desperation of the state's denizens to such good effect. You notice it in the classic 1940s black-and-white movies that the French would end up dubbing "film noir" and the 1970s colorful neo-noirs like Chinatown. It's there in television shows like Dragnet, the Los Angeles proto-procedural that adopted the terseness of crime-fiction prose, to The Rockford Files (Vince Vaughn says he came to the HBO show in part because he was discussing a Rockford Files re-boot with Pizzolatto).

"In one way or another, most contemporary writers are still paying homage to the first generation," says Blake Allmendinger, a professor of humanities at UCLA and the editor of the upcoming anthology A History of California Literature. "Although we now have more women detectives [in fact, Rachel McAdams plays a hardened female cop on True Detective], minority detectives, even comic detectives, the writers are still working with same basic formula."

It's easy to imagine Pizzolatto is drawing on the wave of revisionist Cali-noirs that came out of the Nixon era, given how they utilized the sunbaked feel of the state and a paranoid state of mind. (It's also obvious in the visuals: Just look at how the first episode's director, Justin Lin, shoots everything in washed-out browns and yellows redolent of drought and decay.) But he's also faced with the looming question of what a California-based True Detective can contribute to a genre that's thoroughly saturated our bookshelves and screens for so long now.

The season will inevitably be stood up against that rich history. Vaughn, McAdams, and co-stars Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch must walk down those same mean streets as a million other Golden State residents who weren't necessarily mean, tarnished and afraid. Either the show will set itself apart, or it will wind up being just another crime story that happens to be set way, way out west.