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Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave

The approach to the Mojave town of Twentynine Palms is a long, dusty parade route of fraternal lodges, cheap motels, and cross streets with names that beckon – North Star and Lupine and Ocotillo – and front yards with pit bulls that tell you to forget about it. Then, the town itself, split in half by the age-old conflict of violence and beauty: north of the main drag is the world’s largest Marine base; south is Joshua Tree National Park, sanctuary for freak-show plants and extreme geography.

In the shadow of this military outpost and against a panorama of spectacular desert scenery camps a roiling brew of latter-day tribes: blackguards and exiles, run-away kids, prospectors, retirees, asthmatics, descendants of early pioneers, bikers, hikers, Crips, Bloods, skinheads, Samoans, methamphetamine chefs, people who worship intently at the altar of personal rights.

In 1991, it all collided: two young girls were savagely murdered by a troubled Marine who had recently returned from the Gulf War. One was about to turn 16, the other 21. How did these girls come to find themselves in a certain apartment on a certain night in Twentynine Palms? What family and cultural legacies dogged them and ultimately sealed their doom? How are America’s children faring in the shadow of military outposts where dwells those who are sworn to protect the country?

Exquisitely and inexorably, Deanne Stillman uses this tragedy as a prism through which she explores not only the murders and the families involved, but a rootless culture of fatherless families, shattered dreams, and relentless violence. In haunting, vivid prose, she creates a far-reaching story of America itself, carrying us into the empty white heart of the Mojave, as we meet and come to know the modern nomads who turn to the West for salvation only to be devoured by its false promise.    [top]

"One of the best books of 2001." - The Los Angeles Times

Praise for Twentynine Palms

“This is a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.“

— Hunter S. Thompson

“A book as stunning as it is shocking. In Stillman’s prose, you can almost feel the blistering heat of the Mojave Desert, smell the stale beer of the seedy bars... This book is unforgettable.“

Arizona Daily Star Sunday Book Review

“This haunting desert-gothic tale will remind some of Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, but the beautiful relentless intensity of Deanne Stillman’s personal engagement with this emblematic crime story gives it a stunning originality. It’s an irresistible plunge into a palm-fringed nightmare.“

— Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler

“Stark observations of beer and crack-fueled parties among jarheads and townies...A fascinating, if chilling read.“


Twentynine Palms is one of the best stories to ever come out of the high California Desert, a tale of poverty and violence and Marines gone bad in a place where the Hell’s Angels are a girl’s best friends. Stillman has written a terrific book, and an important one, painting a picture of American life, post-Desert Storm, that is just shy of apocalyptic.“

— Judith Freeman, author of Red Water

“Blows readers away...with the blood and guts and heart of the murder.“

Austin Chronicle

“Deanne Stillman makes us finally face how many Americans live and die and keep on living lives that we know in our bones are DOA. The place, a desert of wind howling with twelve packs of loneliness. The people, lost souls driven into an American graveyard outback of the West Coast’s celluloid dreams. This the Great American Desert where the sun has yet to shine.“

— Charles Bowden, author of Blues for Cannibals:
The Notes from Underground

“Good news for readers who’ve been waiting for a book to match In Cold Blood.“

East Bay Express

“Whew! Stillman writes a dust-devil tale of murder, madness and the military soaked in white-hot passion and razor-sharp insights. Not since Raymond Carver weaved down his strip of motels and trailer parks has anyone dared the high-wire act of writing the low-life and carried it off with such ease.”

— Lucian Truscott, author of Dress Gray

“Stillman immerses herself and her reader in a world at which few desire even to peek, depriving both of cliche.“

Los Angeles Weekly

“To writer Deanne Stillman’s enormous credit, her new book focuses less on the murderer than on the sad, awful world of the murdered girls...Even trickier, she makes you care.“

Pages Magazine

“Stillman’s conscientious research and stylistic verve make Twentynine Palms an engrossing read, well above most true-crime stories.“

Washington Post

“A haunting and evocative journey to strange yet recognizable terrain.“

Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Stillman’s] writing and reporting skills are excellent.“

Sunday Oregonian

“Highly recommended for all public libraries.“

Library Journal

“Twentynine Palms whispers and it shouts and it cries. It shows loneliness and how it turns to murder. It's about a place in the California desert, but it's also the place in every town where living and dying are balanced on the edge of emptiness. Deanne Stilman knows that place and its people, their longing and their hurt.“

D.J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

all material © Deanne Stillman, 2002-2020