Phoenix Noir



Phoenix is a young city, even by Arizona standards. The desert metropolis, easily the largest in the Southwest today, wasn’t established until 1867, much later than Tucson, Prescott, and other Arizona towns. As the legend goes, fortune-seeker and former Confederate soldier Jack Swilling noticed the ruins of the extensive Hohokam canal system while passing through the Salt River Valley and recognized the economic potential in getting the irrigation ditches up and running again. Centuries earlier, the Hohokam Indians had disappeared, no one really knows why, but the elaborate canal system they left behind provided the foundation upon which a new city would arise. Swilling battled alcoholism and opiate addiction and would later die in Yuma Territorial Prison under suspicion of highway robbery (he was posthumously cleared of the charge).

Although historians debate whether Swilling or fellow pioneer Darrell Duppa first named the town “Phoenix,” the idea it evoked, a new civilization rising out of the ashes of a previous culture, is revealing. It implied new beginnings, a place where hard-working young families from the East could start over anew. Of course, it wasn’t always such a great deal for the nearby Pima and Maricopa Indians.

Early boosters promoted Phoenix as a desert paradise, a lush resort town where health-seekers could enjoy the benefits of clean dry air and warm winter weather. The burgeoning city was quickly so infested with “lungers”—people suffering from tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments—that alarmed citizens pressured advertisers to downplay the palliative effects of the environment. Magazine ads from the ’40s and ’50s show squeaky clean white families enjoying the “relaxed pace” of desert living: children playing in the sunshine, Dad practicing his golf swing or sipping a highball by the swimming pool.

From the very beginning, Phoenix has always had a darker side. It is a city founded upon shady development deals, good ol’ boy politics, police corruption, organized crime, and exploitation of natural resources. Close proximity to the Mexican border makes the city a natural destination spot for illegal trafficking of all kinds—narcotics, weapons, humans. These days, “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio routinely makes headlines for his vigilante-style hunting of illegal aliens and his casual disregard of human rights. And he keeps getting reelected.

Modern-day Phoenix is a textbook case of suburban sprawl gone unchecked. Endless cookie-cutter housing developments, slapped up on the cheap, metastasize outward into the desert, soaking up energy and water that we don’t really have. All of that concrete and asphalt traps the heat, raising temperatures to apocalyptic extremes. During the summer, these “heat bubbles” can be lethal (during one record-breaking month in 2004, fourteen people died from heat exposure, most of them homeless).

The city recently overtook Philadelphia to become the fifth largest city in the country, and the Phoenix metro area now rivals Los Angeles County in size. As in all major cities, the gulf between Phoenix’s haves and have-nots continues to widen with the steady decline of the middle class. The affluent northeast valley—Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Carefree—has little in common with the sunburned working-class neighborhoods of South Phoenix and much of the west valley, though the developers are trying to change that with gentrification. The population of the city continues to grow and morph, but the legacy of the early ward system, in which much of the political representation resided in the wealthier—and whiter—first and second wards, lives on to this day.

What does all this mean? Crime, and lots of it. The stories collected in this anthology provide a revealing glimpse of a dark underbelly that the tourists rarely see. Novelist and veteran journalist Jon Talton provides a masterly portrayal