Volume 25, No. 3, Fall 2009
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Crime and Jazz in L.A. by Nancy-Stephanie Stone
- Ross Macdonald by Tobias Jones
- Guardin’ Angels – Part Two by Jim Doherty
- Los Angeles Dreamland by Megan Abbott
- Killing Time in L.A. by Victor Banis
- Ross Macdonald: An Appreciation by Linwood Barclay
- Hollywood, Crime, and the Roman à Clef by Jack Bludis
- Los Angeles Chose Me by Kent Braithwaite
- Anthrax, the Angel City, and L.A. Noir by John Buntin
- Go Ahead and Laugh: I Love L.A. by Jan Burke
- Los Angeles and The Snatch by David Champion
- Hotline to Los Angeles by Alan Cook
- Creating the Hollywood Crime Novel by Shelly Frome
- Found In Translation: L.A. As Mystery Muse by Denise Hamilton
- Who Polices Los Angeles? by Gay Toltl Kinman
- A Novel Approach to the Truth by Robert S. Levinson
- Holy Death and Other Hollywood Mysteries by Harol Marshall
- Ross Macdonald: Where The Past Is Present by Tom Nolan
- Excavating Los Angeles by Gary Phillips
- Want a Makeover? L.A.’s the Place by Penny Rudolph
- Which L.A.? by Alexandra Sokoloff
- Crime Writer’s Paradise by Steven M. Thomas
- In Short: L.A. by Marvin Lachman
- Just The Facts: The First Suicide Bomber by Jim Doherty
- At Home Online: Michael Connelly interviewed by Laurie R. King
- Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by Lesa Holstine and Verna Suit
- From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph
Los Angeles Dreamland
by Megan Abbott (Forest Hills, New York)
I always feel like an imposter writing about Los Angeles. When I started writing my first novel, I’d only been there once. But even on that first visit, everything had the shimmering quality of an old, half-remembered dream. We stayed in North Hollywood with Sam, my future father-in-law, in a house once owned by Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. Every time I looked at the glittering kidney-shaped pool in the backyard I thought of the two stars swimming there on long-ago night. Sam’s wife Paula worked in the costume department at Warner Brothers. The room I slept in held her seamstress dress form, which loomed over me as I slept, moonlit and glamorous. The smell of jasmine floated through the patio doors all night.
By day, Sam took me on long driving tours through the winding hills, showing me where Bugsy Siegel met his end and the Beverly Hills house where Lana Turner’s daughter stabbed the star’s mobster lover. In Benedict Canyon, Sam tried to bluff his way up to the cul-de-sac that marked the grim end of Cielo Drive. When I told Sam about Raymond Chandler’s famed haunt, he took me for a gimlet at Musso’s, even though it was only 11 o’clock in the morning and he didn’t drink. Seating in the red leather banquette, I felt transported. The whole trip was like walking into the endless movie reel that had been unwinding in my head since I was eight years old.
I’ve been to Los Angeles probably ten times since that first visit and every time, I get that wonder back. A few years ago, Linda Brown from Mystery Bookstore in Westwood picked me up at the Burbank airport to drive me to the store. Whenever I see her, she reminds me of my giddiness as we drove through what, to her, were the most pedestrian of neighborhoods—Sherman Oaks, Studio City. To me, it’s all steeped in silvery childhood memories.
If we are all always trying to retrieve some glittering lost scrap from our childhood—that Rosebud sled gave us (don’t movies give us all our touchstones?)—for me it was the world of Golden-Age Hollywood movies. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t lying, chin on the carpet, watching Matinee at the Bijoux on our local public television station or Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD. When I wasn’t gazing, wonder-fixed, on flickering images of Jean Harlow, James Cagney and Joan Crawford. I was at the local used bookstore, the library, church book fairs, poring over The Films of Clark Gable, They Had Faces Then and After the Parade’s Gone By. When I started writing crime fiction two decades later, the prose itself was informed by an immersion in Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and the other hardboiled masters—but the world I tried to create in those books was celluloid-dipped.
All the glamour-shot doom of noir and the sleek candy colors of 1950s melodrama—these movies provided windows into mid-century Los Angeles—a fictional, soundstaged Los Angeles. The motel courtyards, curtained-walled nightclubs, late-night diners, counters gleaming—the endless swoop and swirl of cars winding up the hills, prowling through the downtown streets—headlights illuminating those famous street signs. WILSHIRE. HOLLYWOOD. SUNSET. Like detours into a dream.
These worlds have become the world of much of my fiction and they continue to haunt my dreams. Right now, finishing up my first contemporary novel set in an unnamed suburb as far from Hollywood, from “Los Angeles,” as my own New York City apartment, I still long for it. Somehow, in my head, I’m driving on Olympic Boulevard just before dusk, straight into the shimmery center of the centerless city itself.
Megan Abbott is the Edgar-winning author of the crime novels Queenpin, The Song Is You and Die a Little, and the nonfiction study, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. She is also the editor of the collection A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, and her stories have appeared in several other noir collections. Her latest novel, Bury Me Deep, which is loosely based on the Winnie Ruth Judd “Trunk Murderess” scandal of the 1930s, was published in summer 2009.
Ross Macdonald: An Appreciation
by Linwood Barclay (Burlington, Ontario)
What first caught my eye when I spotted The Goodbye Look on the spindly metal paperback rack in the IGA grocery store in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, nearly forty years ago was the font used for the title and its author, Ross Macdonald.
The words were all in bold capitals that had a 3-D look about them, the letters casting backwards shadows. I was fifteen, and had only recently gotten over my obsession with an espionage TV show called The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which had ended its run on NBC a couple of years earlier. But I’d always liked the bold, three-dimensional letters that had been used to spell out the spy organization’s name on its logo. “The Goodbye Look” and “Ross Macdonald” were done up in that same lettering.
So, that’s what caught my eye. What made me pick the Bantam paperback was the blurb at the top. It was from William Goldman’s writeup in the New York Times Book Review, and it said, “The finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”
That was good enough for me. I bought the book—95¢. Books were a bargain back when I was fifteen.
I could never have guessed then that I would eventually know this author, that he would be a mentor to me.
I wasn’t new to crime fiction. I’d started out with the Hardy Boys around Grade Three. I moved on to Agatha Christie. Sometime around Grade Seven, I discovered the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout.
All great stuff.
But there was something different about Ross Macdonald. These mysteries featuring detective Lew Archer—after finishing The Goodbye Look I couldn’t find the others fast enough—were darker, moodier. They were thoughtful, psychological. Macdonald used the conventions of the detective novel to explore social issues. Alienation, family dysfunction, lost teens, wealth and corruption. In such later novels as The Underground Man and Sleeping Beauty, ecological concerns were folded into the plots.
The Archer novels challenged me in ways other crime fiction had not. Most mysteries, you had only one question in mind: “Who did it?” But reading a Macdonald mystery, you wondered how these people managed to go on, how they could inflict so much suffering on each other, whether they were fated to live these tormented lives. Macdonald’s mysteries were about buried secrets and how they inevitably come to the surface, as though coming into the light will have a purifying effect.
Macdonald’s work became an inspiration to me. I’d been writing stories as long as I’d been reading them. In my early teens, I would take characters from my favorite television shows and create my own adventures for them. But as I approached my twenties, I came up with my own detective and wrote a couple of novels—unpublished, thankfully—starring him.
In my final year at Trent University, I wrote a thesis on the private detective as an iconic literary device. I gave Chandler’s Marlowe and Hammett’s Spade their due, but Archer was my real focus. I wrote to Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald was a pseudonym) care of his publisher, asking if he could refer me to any critical writing about his work. To my delight, he wrote back and pointed me toward a number of things, including a Newsweek cover story.
Then I did a very bad thing.
I wrote back and said I had, you know, written a novel, and he could absolutely say no, I would totally understand, but could I, maybe, perhaps, send it to him?
He said sure.
And he liked it. He made some suggestions. The writing was a bit too spare, he said. The book needed a subplot. But with work, it would be worth publishing. I rewrote it, Kenneth Millar read it again. Liked it even more. We entered into a correspondence that lasted several years. He wrote and told me he and his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar, were coming to Canada. Their trip included a stopover in the town where I went to university.
Would I be interested in joining them for dinner, he asked?
For most kids growing up in Canada, this would be like hockey great Bobby Orr asking if you wanted to hang out.
We had dinner. I gave him a tour of Trent University. I told him how much I loved the opening scene of The Underground Man, where Archer and a small boy feed some birds together. I loved the combination of gentleness and tension. “I’ll write another one like that for you,” he said, smiling. We talked about his youth, growing up in Ontario, not that far from where we were having dinner.
We continued to correspond, but his letters to me became less frequent. I worried that I was becoming a pest, and eased off. I learned later that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s—there were a couple of moments, during our brief time together, when he seemed oddly confused—and a little more than seven years after our meeting, he passed away.
To this day, I remain impressed by Kenneth Millar’s writing, of course, but even more by his kindness and generosity. It amazes me that someone of his fame and standing could be bothered to nurture some budding author—not even out of school yet—a few thousand miles away.
When I met him for dinner, I brought along a copy of Sleeping Beauty for him to sign. He wrote: “Peterborough, Ontario, May 1, 1976. For Linwood, who will, I hope, someday outwrite me. Sincerely, Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald).”
Not there yet.
Linwood Barclay is the author of No Time for Goodbye, Too Close to Home, and most recently, Fear the Worst. For 15 years, he wrote a column for the Toronto Star, a job he recently retired from to write books full-time. He and his wife Neetha have two grown children.
Found In Translation: L.A. As Mystery Muse
by Denise Hamilton (Glendale, California)
As a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I was lucky enough to cover the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. When I returned to L.A., everything seemed pale and insipid by comparison. Even worse, the paper assigned me to a bureau far from Moscow or Berlin.
They sent me to the San Gabriel Valley.
I’d have preferred Siberia. The Valley was one big Ur-suburb, crammed with light industry, malls and tract homes. The pastel map grids of Les Frères Thomas listed towns like Covina, Duarte, Alhambra. El Monte, Pomona and Azusa. I’d often hurtled past them on the freeway, bound for somewhere else. Now they would be my destination.
This was not the L.A. that I knew and cherished, the worlds so vividly drawn by James Cain, Nathanael West and Joan Didion. This was not the L.A. of Steven Spielberg or David Hockney or Wolfgang Puck. This was a landscape far, far east of La Brea. Nobody power-lunched in the San Gabriel Valley. They were too busy working to pay off the second mortgage on those cookie cutter homes.
Our office lay halfway to San Bernardino in a city called Monrovia and shared space in a bleak shopping center with Toys R Us and Mervyn’s. By 9 AM on summer mornings, the bony spines of the San Gabriel Mountains to the north would be obscured by a thick brown haze. They were a scrubby and desolate range from which bears and mountain lions emerged regularly to confront hillside residents. Each year, flash floods and icy ridges in the Angeles National Forest killed several people. We were so close to the city but nature, too, demanded its pound of flesh. It was only we who called it accidents.
In the dead space between interviews and board meetings, I cruised the Valley’s wide avenues. Whenever possible, I grilled cops, teachers, business owners and social workers about my new stomping grounds. But it was a realtor who taught me about the “Golden Triangle,” the heavily Asian communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights and Walnut that clustered around the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple at the base of the foothills.
Here, big American developers wouldn’t dream of breaking ground until their feng shui consultant vetted the land and signed off on blueprints. Here, every blond sales agent knew her business phone ended with triple eight because that meant good luck in Chinese numerology. Here, Latino workmen were adept at installing built-in stovetop woks and storage cupboards for 50-lb. bags of rice.
One day a cop invited me on a brothel raid and I joined agents from the FBI, INS, L.A. County sheriff and local detectives as they broke down the doors of three suburban tract houses where teenaged Asian girls smuggled across the Pacific were forced to work as sex slaves to pay off their $35,000 passage. There, I found a poem on crumpled paper in the trash that a Chinese Daily News reporter translated for me. It read in part:
Please let me forget about this
And give me one night without sorrow
Let me go through rain and wind
Until I see my home again
Maybe I will drink to ease this heavy heart
But you will never see me shed a tear
On a brighter note, I also found the San Gabriel Village Square, an anomaly that only the Pacific Rim fantasy aesthetic of Los Angeles could have produced. Built in a Spanish Mission style, with dusky peach tones, the three-story shopping center served the Overseas Chinese community. On occasion, a looky-lou gringo like myself would wander through, but we were the exception.
Here, you could gorge on Islamic Chinese food, buy designer suits from Hong Kong, pick out live lobsters and $700 bottles of French cognac and take out a $1 million insurance policy on your cheating spouse. I half-expected to see Jackie Chan hurtling off the balcony of the Ranch 99 market wearing his trademark grin, with scar-faced, gun-wielding gangsters in hot pursuit.
Eventually, this shopping center came to symbolize the changes racing through the San Gabriel Valley like a major earthquake. In the late 1980s, Monterey Park became the first continental U.S. city with a majority Asian population. Traditionally WASP-y enclaves such as San Marino are now half Asian, as is master-planned Walnut on the region’s eastern rim. Drive along Valley Boulevard, the main Asian commercial thoroughfare, and you’ll see as many signs in Chinese as English. Many wealthy and middle-class immigrants now bypass traditional Chinatown altogether, making the San Gabriel Valley the nation’s first suburban Chinatown.
There is a historic continuum to all this that strikes me as inevitable. Hadn’t the peaceful and nomadic Gabrieleno Indians been swept away 150 years earlier by gold miners and Spanish land grantees, whose beautiful daughters were in turn assimilated through marriage with WASP pioneers from the Eastern Seaboard?
One sweltering day when the heat rising from the asphalt was enough to trigger hallucinations, I realized I was as much a foreign correspondent here as I had been in Central Europe, and that’s exactly how I should cover it. My turf began just ten miles east of downtown, but light years removed from the monolithic towers of corporate America. With its 1.3 million residents, the Valley was a bubbling brew of new immigrants and old-timers, small business and multi-million dollar shopping centers. All the big West Coast cities were morphing into 21st century Pacific Rim capitals, but in the San Gabriel Valley, the future had already here. If this place had an ethos, it was “Welcome stranger. Come live among us and prosper.”
With apologies to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick, I believe the future of Los Angeles lies not in the claustrophobic urban core, but in the suburbs where the last empty spaces of the Wild, Wild West meet and fuse with an even wilder East.
It’s a world that’s slowly seeping into American letters and cinema. If Raymond Chandler were writing today, he’d send Philip Marlowe to investigate the murder of a Hong Kong businessman who left behind a beautiful wife, a mistress and an Irwindale factory that made silicon chips worth their weight in gold. The Midwestern extras who yearned for Hollywood oblivion in Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust would be recast as survivors of Pol Pot’s killing fields living above a Cambodian eatery in Alhambra. And Joan Didion might hunker down in a Monterey Park nightclub with Hong Kong’s bicultural “golden youth.”
My own journey into fiction—specifically the mystery genre—began the day as I stood in front of a huge Tudor house in San Marino. It was the type of place that a successful bank president might own. Instead, two teenagers lived here on their own.
They were part of a widespread phenomenon called “parachute kids.” Typically, the entire family parachuted in from Hong Kong, Seoul or Taipei to establish a foothold in the US as a hedge against political or economic uncertainty at home. The parents bought a house in an affluent neighborhood, enrolled the kids in school, then jetted back to Asia (the dads were called astronauts) to oversee family businesses. Some left behind nannies or an auntie but the kids I ended up calling Jonathan, 18, and his sister Zoe, 14, were alone, unless you counted the elderly Chinese housekeeper who didn’t speak English. Parenting was done electronically and when Dad visited L.A. on business.
“We’ve been on our own so long that we really don’t know what it’s like to have parents,” Jonathan told me, staring at two large screen TVs. One was tuned to a Chinese satellite channel. The other to MTV. Just like the two lobes of his brain, I thought, wondering whether he ever heard static as the circuits crossed.
Later, a youth counselor at a Rosemead clinic told me that alienation, lack of parenting and loneliness ate away at youngsters like Jonathan. Most avoided trouble but others joined Asian youth gangs like the Wah Ching, the V Boys or the Black Dragons, working as hired muscle for older gangsters from the Chinese triads. Parents sitting in safe old Taipei had no idea of the scary stuff lurking in our upscale American suburbs. The neighborhoods might look like movie sets, but when trouble went down it was a John Woo movie, not American Graffiti. Guns and no roses, and 1,001 ways for a kid to go bad, when he’s 16 and hurting deep inside.
I wrote a long piece for the Times about Jonathan and Zoe, but it didn’t satisfy me. I chafed at the limitations of journalism. I wanted to crawl inside their heads, imagine what happened to them and their friends long after I had filed my story and gone home.
Each night, the voices of the San Gabriel Valley replayed like a broken tape loop in my brain, clicking and whirring in a multitude of languages. They were the voices of fear, resignation and hope. A microcosm of our society. A glimpse into an unwieldy future. Soon after that, I started writing what become my first book.
I called it The Jasmine Trade. It was a finalist for the Edgar and launched my mystery writing career. Six books later, I’m still as besotted with Los Angeles as ever. It’s an endlessly renewing creative spring. It’s home.
Denise Hamilton is the author of the Eve Diamond crime novels and The Last Embrace (Scribner, 2008), a novel set in 1949 Hollywood. She also edited Los Angeles Noir, the Edgar Award-winning short story anthology (Akashic, 2007).
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