Mystery Casino

Photo by Scalif, Intersofia

If you’ve ever visited or lived in San Diego, you’ve seen the Coronado Islands, which lie about twenty miles southwest of downtown, eight miles due west of Tijuana. I mention the islands in my second Rolly Waters novel, Border Field Blues, but the islands play a bigger role in Ballast Point Breakdown, specifically the ruins of a casino that was built on South Coronado Island in the 1930s.

The casino was a joint venture between American businessman Frederick W. Hamilton and Tijuana businessman Mariano Escobedo. It was named the Coronado Islands Yacht Club and provided both liquor and gambling facilities for guests.

Image from San Diego History Center

Prohibition was repealed soon after the casino was built, and gambling was made illegal in Mexico. The casino shut down eighteen months after it opened. It re-opened the next year as a weekend getaway hotel, with an emphasis on fishing and hiking as attractions, and remained in business until 1944.

There’s less of the building remaining than I described in the novel (artistic license!), but you can still see the foundations of the old hotel on Google Maps.

Celebrity guests are said to have included Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Al Capone. As an interesting side note L Ron Hubbard, while serving as captain of the sub-chaser USS PC-815, gave orders to shell the Coronado Islands for target practice one day in June 1943. Mexican soldiers and officials stationed on the island lodged a complaint with the US Navy and Hubbard was relieved of his command as an “officer lacking in the essential qualities of judgment, leadership and cooperation.”

Image from History of the Coronado Islands by That Baja Guy-Gary Graham

Preservation Plus

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been around since the early 1960s, an outgrowth of the Preservation Hall venue in New Orleans. In its early incarnations, the band served as an essential employer for older New Orleans musicians and provided an important connection to the deep history of jazz in that city. When I was a kid way back when, my parents took me to one of their tour stops in San Diego. It was my first introduction to what’s now known as “trad” jazz.

Flash forward to 2015 and my first trip to New Orleans. My wife and I visited Preservation Hall and now it’s pretty much my favorite place in the world. Every time I go there it’s a religious experience, for both the music and the deep history. It’s the funkiest shrine you’ll ever find.

No alcohol, no AC, just good vibes and great music

This was especially true for my first visit, when we were lucky enough to have what I’ll call the “A” team of the Preservation Hall Band on the stage. Aside from their stellar musicianship, what’s really fantastic about this group is the way they’ve updated the trad jazz at the heart of their sound with original compositions that incorporate more Afro-Cuban styles as well as a few modern jazz and funk inflections. Below is a great video concert (though not from Preservation Hall) that’s a great representation of their sound, mixing new and traditional.

The band’s most recent albums, That’s It! and So It Is are both fantastic. I also recommend the recent documentary Tuba to Cuba.

New Orleans musicians connect with their Cuban roots

Give any of the music above a listen. I guarantee it will light (and lighten) up your life.

Blackout List

The Black Publishing Power Initiative is asking readers to buy two books written by Black authors during the week of June 14 – 20. If you’re looking for ideas, here’s a few African-American crime writers I’ve read and can recommend. I’ve met most of these authors as well, and they’re all really cool people. So if you’d like to support this initiative and are looking for something new to read in crime fiction, buy a couple of their books (or all of them). In no particular order, here’s some writers I think you should check out:

Rachel Howzell Hall
Alexia Gordon
Gary Phillips
Gar Anthony Haywood
Attica Locke
Walter Mosley
Kellye Garrett

There are, of course, many others. Below are some additional resources for discovering books by other crime writers of color.

And if you’re interested in exploring some foundational works of African-American crime literature, you might also want to try books by Barbara Neely and Chester Himes.

Indigo Spring

Spring becomes indigo in my neighborhood and other parts of San Diego when the Jacaranda trees bloom. They’re the official non-native tree of our city. Below are some photos of this year’s bloom.

Jacaranda mimosifolia was first introduced here by Kate Sessions, our city’s founding botanist and the “Mother of Balboa Park“.

I’m working on a historical mystery (working title The Donkey Boy’s Dilemma) set in San Diego in 1891. One chapter takes place in the 30 acre nursery Kate Sessions leased from the city in what is now Hillcrest. The first Brazilian pepper trees she imported and planted in San Diego provide a valuable clue. Now I’m thinking I might switch the tree to jacarandas (the clues would work either way, with a slight rewrite).

A Walk Along Driscoll’s Wharf

One of the more enjoyable parts of starting a new Rolly Waters book is the research I get to do in my hometown of San Diego. Sometimes I get to investigate places I already know. And sometimes I just happen upon a place that strikes me as great location for scenes in a book. Such was the case when my wife and I discovered Driscoll’s Wharf a few years ago. It quickly became a key location for Ballast Point Breakdown.

Looking into America’s Cup Harbor from Driscoll’s Wharf

Places that are rundown and a little rough looking always attract my attention, especially when there’s a close combination of elements, place where different types of people can intermix. It’s clear when you walk down to the end of Driscoll’s Wharf that the area has seen better days. There have been some improvements since I first visited. The buildings I described as “shambolic grey elephants” now have a fresh coat of paint. The jagged, rusted fence connecting these brick columns has been removed.

Looking out to San Diego Bay from halfway along the wharf. I decided the OTTER boats could be garaged somewhere in here.
Locked gates are always enticing. Harmonica Dan might live on one of these boats.
After seeing a sign like this, you can’t help but start writing a crime novel in your head.
Sportfishing trips leave from the harbor. These carts are brought out when boats come in to collect all the fish, mostly bluefin and albacore.
I couldn’t work lobster traps into the book, but I thought about it.
Rolly gets an Opah burrito from Mitch’s Seafood near Driscoll’s Wharf.
Mitch’s doesn’t actually serve burritos, but they do have great fish tacos.

I took these photos in early March 2020, shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak. Social distancing should be relatively easy to do in the Wharf area if you go for a walk in the area. And Mitch’s is doing takeout orders if you call ahead.

You can see from the map below how Driscoll Wharf abuts part of the US Naval Base on San Diego Bay. The Admiral Kidd Club sits on the point just behind it. Dolphin pens from the Navy’s Marine Mammal program were just offshore near the Harbor Drive bridge, but they moved somewhere else while I was writing the book.

A beer and a book. Always a good combination.