Carcosa: True Detective Season 1 blew a lot of people’s minds with its story of this mythic place, which is rumored to be the source of all corruption and depravity. Or perhaps it’s just the ruined estate where Detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) finally track down the child murderer they spend decades pursuing. Season 1 never quite answers this question, and even after the news broke that the two beloved lead characters would not return for Season 2, there was at least some hope that a new crop of characters could finish the job that Rust and Hart started: find Carcosa and burn it to the ground. Disappointing fans for the second time, True Detective‘s sophomore season told an entirely disconnected story, set in the city of Vinci, a nondescript industrial city on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
However, Vinci does have one thing Carcosa doesn’t. It’s based on a real place. Vinci was inspired by the city of Vernon, and if you felt the story of True Detective Season 2 lacked those Lovecraftian chills, the true story of Vernon might satisfy you.
The True History of Vernon
“It started out as a vice haven, early 1900s. Went industrial in the ’20s. Pushed out residents for manufacturing zones.” That’s how “Vinci” is described in the show by the state detective trying to start a municipal corruption investigation. Vernon itself was founded in 1905 through the machinations of city founder J.B. Leonis, and its original reputation was, indeed, of a “vice haven,” though vice by 1905 standards just meant that the city had a lot of bars, sold alcohol on Sundays, and that it was a good spot to watch boxing and baseball (while drinking).
But booze and sports were always just a side hustle. The city was always primarily intended to cater to industry, and discourage everything else. The minimum number of residents legally required to incorporate a city was 500, and at one point Vernon had that many people living there, many of them on farms. It’s not clear that they were “pushed out,” but over the next few decades, the farms went away and were replaced with slaughterhouses, chemical plants, foundries, and other things known for bad smells. Over that time, the population dropped, down to 100 by the 2010 census. And, though today not many people live there, tens of thousands of people come to Vernon to work.
You might think, sure, why not have all the industry in one city, while everyone lives somewhere else? The problem is, if there aren’t any residents, there aren’t any voters, and so there’s no way to hold the city’s industrial tax base accountable. The people who work in Vernon live in neighboring cities and have to live with its pollution, with no way to control it politically. This has already had a devastating impact.
Things get a little more uncanny. What little housing exists in Vernon is owned by the city, and rented out to city employees at well below market rates. So whoever currently controls Vernon also decides who can live there, and vote there. In this way, the city has stayed under the control of its founding families for a hundred years. In 1975, J.B. Leonis’ grandson, Leonis Malburg (yes, his name was literally “Malburg”) became mayor of Vernon. He would hold that position for 34 years, almost always running for reelection unopposed, all while paying himself an exorbitant salary. His hold on power eventually unraveled in the most ridiculous way imaginable, as we’ll see later on.
‘True Detective’ Season 2’s Real Filming Locations
The locations in this season of television are gorgeous and wide-ranging, from the hidden tunnels under Downtown Los Angeles to a Rancho Palos Verdes seaside chapel. Location filming is not uncommon in Vernon, and in fact, there’s even a movie filming in Vinci within the True Detective storyline, using the city to play a post-industrial wasteland. Still, it’s quite audacious to cast the city to play a fictionalized nightmare version of itself, which the show did.
Most of the housing in Vernon exists on one block, right behind Vernon’s city hall, a suburban island in a sea of industry. Most of these homes are occupied by Vernon police officers and firefighters. In True Detective Season 2, Colin Farrell plays Ray Velcoro, a Vinci police detective, and one of these homes plays his house. In one shot you see him walk from his front door, right to work at city hall. The importance of this location is unlikely to register unless you know the true story of Vernon, but it’s amazing that the show paid this much attention to detail.
The mayor of Vinci (Richie Coster) is, like the ex-mayor of Vernon, the grandson of the town founder. Also like his real-life counterpart, he doesn’t really live in his own city, which is illegal. Leonis Malburg actually lived in his family’s mansion in the ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park. The Chessani mansion is in Bel Air in the story, though the filming location is actually in Beverly Hills.
In True Detective Season 2, most of Vinci’s illicit activity is managed by Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a gangster who launders the city’s money out of a poker room called the Vinci Gardens Casino. Most forms of gambling are illegal in California, but cities do have the ability to legalize poker (and, getting creative, a “variant” of poker known as California blackjack). However, the city of Vernon doesn’t allow gambling, so in that case, the show borrowed a story from nearby cities. The name is likely inspired by the nearby Hawaiian Gardens Casino, which has its own history of corruption.
The End of an Era in Vernon and Vinci
In reality, the Leonis political dynasty ended when a group of men began squatting in an abandoned industrial building in Vernon. This was part of a planned electoral coup. The squatters ran for Vernon city council, and since most elections in Vernon involve counting only a few dozen votes, it was theoretically possible for this insurgent slate to completely take the city over, along with its millions of dollars worth of tax revenue. The city’s incumbent government attempted to cancel the election, which brought a lot of attention. A subsequent investigation disclosed what everyone already knew. The leaders of Vernon didn’t legally reside there. Malburg was found guilty of fraud and resigned in 2009, along with many of his colleagues. His son was found guilty of more serious crimes, ending the dynasty after a century in power.
In the TV show, the mayor of Vinci is murdered by his son, who takes over as mayor. The state’s corruption investigation turns out to be a political stunt, and the city is allowed to continue operating under a new “reform” regime. The reality is a little more complicated. A push at the state level to pass a law that would unincorporate all cities with fewer than 150 residents was proposed. It clearly targeted Vernon, the only city that would have been affected. However, Vernon’s representative in the state senate stepped in to rescue the city, arguing it should instead be given a chance to reform. 10 years later, not much has changed. Meanwhile, HBO has just begun promoting True Detective Season 4. It will be set in Alaska, continuing the show’s fascination with geographically unique police work. While some may be hoping for an eventual return to Carcosa, perhaps what “time is a flat circle” really means is that the show should return to its Vinci timeline, to see how the reform efforts are going.