“It’s terrible when you fasten all your life to a mirage…The worst of it all is when you begin to see the truth—not the truth as the other might have revealed it, but finding it scrap by scrap, little by little. All the time you’re clinging to what you thought was there, and the change, the corruption, is eating it away, and finally there is nothing at all and you think it would be better to die.”
California is a place to reinvent yourself, but what happens when that doesn’t work? When you don’t find what you’re looking for and there’s nowhere left to go? That’s why California noir is the most hopeless. For the characters in Dolores Hitchens’ 1954 novel Beat Back the Tide, California is the end of the line. The gulf between its dazzling promises and what it actually delivers is profound. Everyone has a past they are trying to forget, but, like the tide, it just keeps roaring back.
Beat Back the Tide, reissued this year by Stark House, is a haunting meditation on identity and loss. All of its characters, except one, are trying to become someone else, desperate to escape the failures of other lives in other places. The exception is Francesca Warne, who returns to the scene of her greatest failure by coming to work as a nanny in the house where her husband was murdered several years ago. Francesca is the one person who is always herself, who never lies (though she does hold back a great deal). As a result, she appears contradictory and inscrutable to those around her.
Under her words, under everything she had said since they had come outside, lay something else—something Glazer couldn’t put his finger on but which nonetheless made him faintly uneasy…Mrs. Warne, though she seemed to be saying quite simple things, had other meanings in her head. The thing she wasn’t saying peeped through the tones of her queer, breathless voice and looked from her eyes […] He wondered briefly, standing there near her, watching the black hair glitter in the sun, if the thing that was the matter with her could be fear.
Her boss Glazer (whose first name is never revealed) becomes suspicious of Francesca after several strange events shatter the peace of his house on the cliff. Glazer is introduced as a successful building contractor, a grieving widower who just wants to protect his child. He’s even managed to cultivate a garden in the sparse, sandy soil of the clifftop. However, as he becomes more and more obsessed with the mystery of Francesca’s past, it becomes clear that Glazer’s own past is much darker than his current lifestyle would suggest.
Even the sunny yellow flowers spilling merrily over the cliff take on a more sinister aspect. “It had been after Rheba’s death, and after he had begun to feel some disappointment about Jamie, that he had begun to put so much effort into the garden. And he had conquered here, he thought with a kind of shock, though his wife had escaped him by dying and Jamie evaded his guidance in a way he couldn’t analyze.” He often comes across as almost cruel to his son, Jamie. The boy’s sweet and timid nature hits him like a betrayal. Glazer has decorated Jamie’s room in a heavy, masculine Wild West theme, with pistols and snarling animals hanging on the wall, as if to harden the child to meet the demands of a tough world. Having reinvented himself, Glazer cannot be content with his son as he really is. He must reinvent Jamie as well. Glazer may be the protagonist of Beat Back the Tide, but he’s far from being a hero. The more of his character that is revealed, the more unsettling it is.
Glazer’s quest to solve Adam Warne’s murder is a way of understanding, and thereby controlling, Francesca. His investigation brings him into contact with people who are terrified he will discover the truth behind their carefully crafted new personas. Some of these secret identities seem harmless, like the drugstore clerk turned pampered housewife. Others are more dangerous. Dolores Hitchens conjures up these desperate lives with just a few telling details (“It was not a warm, experienced smile. Probably he did not smile often enough to quite get the hang of it”). Several of the secrets are pathetically small, but this only makes them seem more shameful under Glazer’s withering eye. Even the town of Seaview itself is not what it seems. The community masquerades as a picturesque artists’ colony, but it hasn’t really been that for many years. Instead, Seaview exploits its bohemian past to draw in the tourists and wealthy retirees its economy depends upon. It offers these rootless people the illusion of authenticity, the rough edges they still crave after having smoothed off their own.
The late Adam Warne stirred up these people simply by being his own authentic self, awful as that self was. Since Adam denied himself no impulse, everyone he met knew at once exactly how he saw them. For some, he reflected themselves as they would like to be: talented, beloved. For others, he represented their worst fears. Hitchens is not unkind to her characters, not even the shiftless, alcoholic Adam, who is remembered fondly by a few friends.
If you’ve been talking to people here in town, you’ve got an impression he was lower than dirt […] But you can’t add up a man that way. You can’t just say he was like this and he was rotten, because none of us are just one thing or even one kind of human being. We’re a lot of creatures rolled into a skin and penned up, imprisoned, for the time we have to live. And Adam Warne was a man who never did find out which creature he was meant to be. He experimented. He tried to discover himself.
Beat Back the Tide ends on a disquieting note, with brief surveys of the human wreckage left behind. The astonishing thing is how resilient these characters are after all they have been through. One after another, they all insist that everything is going to work out now. It will be different this time. They will be different this time. And maybe they will. Maybe, for a few, their dreams of California really will come true.
I can attest that Beat Back the Tide is a worthy candidate for Reprint of the Year because I have been thinking about it throughout the entire year. I first read this book back in March, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Its painfully honest but optimistic tone makes this a book for 2020. One is left with the sense of having passed through an ordeal and come out the other side a little battered, but also a little stronger and maybe just a little wiser. Beat Back the Tide takes place in a ruined yet hopeful world where facing the truth, however harsh it may be, is the first step to living “a happy and useful life.” Maybe not the life you’ve always dreamed of, but the life that really belongs to you. “What did you want out of life?” Glazer asks himself, before providing his own answer. “It doesn’t matter. This is what you’ve got.”
Nominations for Reprint of the Year are posted at Crossexamining Crime