(image from NOAA via the Weather Doctor Almanac)
Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. — Raymond Chandler
A writer could get staggering drunk on the high-proof lore surrounding L.A.’s notorious Santa Ana winds.
During a Santa Ana blow, the viciously hot and blasted days give way to insufferably hot and noisy nights. Trees thrash our rooves and fling branches all over the street. Bad Religion calls them “the murder winds.”
And as the jazzbo-weirdo Bobs sing in the immortal a capella “Santa Ana Woman,” The next thing I knew, there was a pain in my head like my sinuses were cracking. The Santa Ana winds had come back, and the whole city of L.A. was acting like it had PMS.
But does the murder rate in L.A. actually skyrocket when the Santa Ana winds blow through?
Pop culture’s been dragging us to that conclusion by our split ends for decades, but what are the facts?
Here’s how the winds work, via the Weather Doctor Almanac:
Most commonly, the Santa Ana winds arise when high pressure builds over the high plateau regions of Nevada and Utah, east of the Sierra Mountains and west of the Rockies. The pressure gradient between this region and the Pacific coastline produces winds that move out of the high plateau toward lower pressure over the Pacific Ocean. As it descends to the coast, the air heats due to the compression of moving from the higher elevation to that at sea level. The heating of the air amounts to about 9.8 Celsius degrees per 1000 metres of descent (5.4 Fahrenheit degrees per 1000 feet). And as this desert air heats, its relative humidity drops further making it drier still, often to less than 15%. (Occasionally, the Santa Ana wind is cold, relatively speaking, because the air’s true origin was in the polar and subpolar regions before moving to the high plateau.)
The complex topography of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges forces the descending, seaward moving air through many passes and canyons, one of which is the Santa Ana Canyon. The Santa Ana winds reaching the Los Angeles Basin and San Diego County typically blow from the north to east and can reach high speeds. Local National Weather Service forecasters usually hold off calling winds Santa Ana winds until their speed exceeds 25 knots (28 mph / 46 km/h). Forcing the air through mountain gaps may further increase the wind speed. Therefore, Santa Ana winds may blow at sustained speeds of 40 mph (65 km/h) with gusts of 70 mph (112 km/h) and at times reaching 115 mph (185 km/h).
In 1938, famed mystery writer Raymond Chandler penned a short story entitled “Red Wind” published first in Dime Detective Magazine and currently found in the collection: Raymond Chandler: Collected Stories. Red Wind is another local name for the Santa Ana wind. The Chandler story has been dramatized on television and radio, most recently as a 1996 episode on Showtime’s Fallen Angels. Danny Glover received an Emmy nomination for his role in this adaptation playing detective Philip Marlow.
In the story, Chandler describes the Santa Ana thus:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
“Red Wind” (1938)
Writer Joan Didion began her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) with the following description of the Santa Ana winds.
"The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific, but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously."
And later adds:
"There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point."
In White Oleander (1999), Janet Fitch uses the Santa Ana as a major device in the plot. She writes of the wind and its effect on the human psyche:
"The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon."
Elizabeth M. Cosin’s 1999 detective novel Zen and the City of Angels parallels Chandler’s description of the wind:
"The Santa Anas have a lot to do with this, dragging thick, hot winds across the Southland with such ferocity they seem to pick up every free particle that’s not nailed down. It makes for some uncomfortable weather, the kind that gets up your nose, into your eyes and underneath your skin."
Yeah, they make Angelenos feel like killing someone – but … do we?
For 23 bucks, you can download the 1968 scholarly article, “Santa Ana Winds and Crime by Willis H. Miller, and if you follow that rabbit hole there’s a whole school of academic thumbsucking over the question of “seasonality and crime” waiting for you.
But let’s cut out the egghead middleman and go to the source:
The L.A. County Coroner’s office handles hundreds of deaths a month. By now, if a wind-driven pattern to murders and suicides were obvious, they would have discovered it.
“The only thing I can say with respect to that is that we notice a caseload spike in terms of numbers of cases – and I can’t say they’re homicide, suicides, accidents, whatever – in January, July and December.” coroner’s spokesman Craig Harvey tells me.
How big are these spikes? A regular caseload of 600 to 800 deaths per month (including homicide, suicide, accident and other deaths that require the coroner’s services) can jump to 1,000 during those months. But are the winds driving that phenomenon?
“If that corresponds with the Santa Anas, full moons, the tides, I don’t know,” Harvey says. “But numerically, when we look at our years worth of case numbers, that’s when we notice a spike in cases. We’ve always known we have a high caseload over the holidays.
“We also have periods of time where we have what are called “hard liquor and handgun weekends, where it’s homicide after homicide after homicide, where it’s busy and then it cools off after a while. You can’t tie it to the day the aid checks come out, or to payday or anything. It just happens.”
October and November – traditionally huge Santa Ana months – don’t show those caseload jumps, which would make this legend just that – a popular myth we entertain ourselves with when the winds are up.
L.A.’s long overdue for another blowdown, and when it comes, you can add to the lore.
Next time the evil wind blows, grab a guitar, a laptop, a pen, a paintbox – and maybe a nice, stiff drink – and make something of it.
(Explore all the L.A. Legends)