John Hood's Reviews > Los Angeles Noir

Los Angeles Noir by Denise Hamilton
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's review
Aug 08, 2010

it was amazing
Read in July, 2010

Bound: The City of Shady Angels - SunPost Weekly July 15, 2010
John Hood

If cities are chicks – and if a city’s worth anything, it better be a chick – then L.A. is one shady lady. You might also say she’s a chick in heat. Wanton, insatiable, and faithful only as far as the next kiss, she’s the kinda chick a man will fall for, kill for and even die for, even as she’s walking out the door.

L.A. is also a city of deep and often creepy secrets. Like the hot chick, it’ll give you the cold shoulder, purely as a matter of habit. But it’s a habit born of conflicting whispers and not so subtle innuendo, rather than any natural arrogance (though there is that too). When she does warm up and talk, it’s the things that are left unsaid you’ve gotta watch out for. Because it’s the untold tale that tells all.

That’s obviously why Los Angeles is so full of story, and why nearly every story that springs from the city is shadier and more duplicitous than the last.

The good folks at Akashic Books know this, and they’ve made a point of showing us too. Back in 2008 the Brooklyn-based house added to its ever-growing arsenal of Noir series titles by luring the likes of Michael Connelly, Susan Straight and Neal Pollack and letting ‘em rip about the city each calls home. The result, Los Angeles Noir (Akashic $15.95), was a ‘hood-by-‘hood romp through the shadows, and, like the others in the series, the equivalent of being given a detailed map to the town’s teaming underbelly.

More recently Akashic went back to the city of shady angels and unleashed Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics ($15.95). Like its predecessor, this second take was expertly edited by Denise Hamilton, a former L.A. Times reporter who’s got her own set of sprees starring the indomitable Eve Diamond. Unlike the previous edition, however, the stories contained here are some of the stories that set the stage for all the other stories to come.

Among the many highlights are Leigh Brackett’s “I Feel Bad Killing You,” Chester Himes’ “The Night’s for Cryin’” and James M. Cain’s “Dead Man.” Cain, you’ll recall, was the crack scribe behind the novels Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, about as dynamite a debut as possible, while Himes was the rad cat who gave the world Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, the two gunned-up gumshoes of The Real Cool Killers and Cotton Comes to Harlem. Brackett wrote novels too, but she’s perhaps best remembered for scripting Robert Altman’s version of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and teaming with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman to do likewise for Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, unquestionably one of the top ten movies of all time.

The Big Sleep also happens to be the novel that made Raymond Chandler’s name synonymous with Noir. In fact it could be said that there’d be no Noir without Chandler (The Classics kicks off with his “I’ll Be Waiting”). Oh, the bad actors that define the form were already there, of course (in fact, Chandler knew many of them), and a whole host of wise-crackin’ scribblers were already pulping it up in rags like Black Mask by the time he came to the game. But before Chandler no writer had captured the City of Shady Angels with such depth and nuance. And none had made the low-slung story into such high art.

Like the bad actors that populate his fiction, Chandler in fact had a past in fact, and Richard Rayneruses that past to thread A Bright and Guilty Place (Anchor $15.95). An oil executive of some small renown (back when forests of derricks covered the L.A. basin), Chandler was also a drunk and a bit of a skirt-chaser. When a fellow executive ratted him out to the big boss at the height of the Depression, Chandler got summarily sacked. And it was then that fate forced him to pick up a pen.

It was slow going at first. In the seven years before breaking through with The Big Sleep Chandler wrote only a total of 20 stories. The first, as Rayner recounts, was called “Blackmailer’s Don’t Shoot,” and it was structured after a novella by Erle Stanley Gardner, then a big man on the Black Mask campus. Gardner, who’d eventually go on to create the legendary Perry Mason, was also the inspiration behind the second career of Leslie T. White, an investigator with the L.A. DA’s office.

White couldn’t abide by the city’s continuous and rampant corruption, and after nearly a decade of witnessing the nefarious doings of what was then called “The System,” he bowed out and began writing of what he knew. Considering White was on hand to investigate the high profile killings of Ned Doheny (son of Teapot Dome oil baron E. L. Doheny and man of the Greystone mansion) and System boss Charlie Crawford (who ran ‘20s and ‘30s L.A. as if it were a fiefdom), he knew a lot. But it was when his boss BuronFitts dropped the prosecution against millionaire John P. Mills in what was called the Love Mart trial and instead saw to the conviction of madam Olive Day (who was testifying for the D.A.) that White decided enough was enough. And in his second life he’d leave behind a horde of stories and one minor classic called Me, Detective.

Rayner’s counterpoint in the telling of L.A.’s shady beginnings is Assistant D.A. David H. Clark, a one-time golden boy who let The System have its way with the city – and eventually with him himself. But like all good guys gone bad who commit multiple murders, karma would catch up to Clark. And Rayner uses his headlined life as a sorta cautionary tale to what can happen to man of fluid morals in a city hellbent on being illicit. With a title taken from Orson Welles, Rayner’s highly-entertaining account of the facts that led to such great fiction is kinda like being let in on the creation story itself. An inside look at the inner workings of those who lived outside and above the laws that they themselves often made.

John Buntin also takes two characters to tell his L.A. story, though in his case it’s gangster Mickey Cohen and Police Chief William H. Parker, perhaps the two best known figures in the city’s pivotal history. Like all of the above, it is the shadows that most interest Buntin, and his L.A. Noir (Three Rivers Press $16) is consumed with what wenton when “the streets were dark with something more than night.”

Buntin begins where Rayner left off, in the late ‘30s, when Parker and Cohen were just coming up. Parker, a native of Deadwood, South Dakota, fought long and hard, against seemingly insurmountable odds, to rid the LAPD of its bad elements. Cohen, who was born in Brownsville, New York, fought it out on the streets after the collapse of The System left a void in the underworld. By the ‘50s the two had become mortal enemies. And it is their ongoing battle which Buntin chronicles with such relish.

As you might suspect, it’s a knockdown, drag out, blood-soaked battle for the very soul of the city itself. People get dead. Then more people get dead. Most of them deserving of the bullets.The bold-faced names are here in force, from newspaper moguls Harry Chandler and William Randolph Hearst (who also hated each other), studio head Harry Cohn, to entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner and Sammy Davis Jr. But it’s Buntin’s sense of place which propels this rigorously researched look back into the depths of America’s most fable-ridden town, and his ability to evoke all the madness and badness and danger as if it were yesterday.

Taken separately, any one of the aforementioned is a delightfully dark ride down some very mean streets. Taken together however, they’re the sum of the sordid cityin its entirety. If you’re at all interested in how L.A. got to be such a shady lady, in fiction and in fact, then this quartet is just what you need to get.

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message 1: by Rosalía (new)

Rosalía Wow how poetic and...erotic...

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