L. A. Writers: Michael Connelly

Why Is It That So Many L. A. Writers Are Mystery Writers?

I read five of his novels before deciding that, yes, Michael Connelly is indeed an L. A. writer. It bothers me that so many of the writers I see as L. A. writers are into the mystery genre. That was true of Raymond Chandler, certainly, and also James Ellroy and Tyler Dilts. If I wanted to, and I may in the future, I could add Joseph Wambaugh and a handful of others.

Perhaps there’s something about Los Angeles itself that brings forth so many fictional investigations into the dark heart of the place. When one things of the noir genre, one could just as easily think of New York or Chicago or Miami or—for heaven’s sake—even my own home town, Cleveland, Ohio. But there is something about Los Angeles that is different. I think I put my finger on it when writing about the film version of The Big Sleep in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style: “Los Angeles adds a horizontal dimension to film noir. In place of the looming monoliths and endless urban alleyways of the Eastern cityscape, there is a physical and moral sprawl, a chain of suburbs full of legal and illegal activities linked by wide boulevards and expressways.”

The Concrete Blonde, which I have just finished reading, is about one (or possibly two?) murderers who prey on porno stars and prostitutes. Connelly’s homicide detective Harry (short for Heironymus) Bosch shoots one killer at the start of the novel, and winds up in a long civil suit for having killed an “innocent man” according to the widow and her attorney. And, when the killings continue, it looks as if Bosch could be in the wrong. While attempting to defend himself, the homicide detective concludes that there is a second killer, whom the LAPD christens “The Follower,” who is responsible for these other killings. Bosch frantically attempts to pin the tail on the right perpetrator.

Unlike Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Tyler Dilts’s Danny Beckett, Harry Bosch comes from a troubled background. In Viet Nam, he blew up Viet Cong tunnels. While he was still young, his mother was murdered. He has had difficulty hanging on to girlfriends, because at a certain point they become frightened of  the “black heart” of Los Angeles that he must fight on a regular basis.

To date, I have read the following Connelly titles, all of which I recommend:

  • The Black Echo (1992)
  • The Black Ice (1993)
  • The Concrete Blonde (1994)
  • Trunk Music (1997)
  • The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)

 

L.A. Writers: Raymond Chandler

The Creator of Philip Marlowe

When I started writing this series of posts, I should have started it off with Raymond Chandler. He is, in so many ways, the quintessential L.A. writer. I did not because I mistakenly thought he was British. Look at that picture: Those eyeglasses, that pose—they partake of this prototypical English gentleman. In fact, Chandler was born in Chicago of an American father and an Irish mother. Although he spent many years in Britain, and even at one point became a naturalized British citizen, his writing career was pure Los Angeles.

I have just finished re-reading his fifth novel, The Little Sister (1949), and kept running into passages that screamed L.A. to me. When told he was in love with the beautiful actress Mavis Weld, Chandler replies:

That would be kind of silly. I could sit in the dark with her and hold hands, but for how long? In a little while she will drift off into a haze of glamour and expensive clothes and froth and unreality and muted sex. She won’t be a real person any more. Just a voice from a sound track, a face on a screen. I’d want more than that.

One of Chandler’s LAPD homicide detectives delivers this thoughtful description of the life of a cop in the city:

It’s like this with us, baby. We’re coppers and everybody hates our guts. And as if we didn’t have enough trouble, we have to have you. As if we didn’t get pushed around enough by the guys in the corner offices, the City Hall gang, the day chief, the night chief, the Chamber of Commerce, His Honor the Mayor in his paneled office four times as big as the three lousy rooms the whole homicide staff has to work out of. As if we didn’t have to handle one hundred and fourteen homicides last year out of three rooms that don’t have enough chairs for the whole duty squad to sit down in at once. We spend our lives turning over dirty underwear and sniffing rotten teeth. We go up dark stairways to get a gun punk with a skinful of hop and sometimes we don’t get all the way up, and our wives wait dinner that night and all the other nights. We don’t come home any more. And nights we do come home, we come home so goddam tired we can’t eat or sleep or even read the lies the papers print about us. So we lie awake in the dark in a cheap house on a cheap street and listen to the drunks down the block having fun. And just about the time we drop off the phone rings and we get up and start all over again. Nothing we do is right, not ever. Not once. If we get a confession, we beat it out of the guy, they say, and some shyster calls us Gestapo in court and sneers at us when we muddle our grammar. If we make a mistake they put us back in uniform on Skid Row and we spend the nice cool summer evenings picking drunks out of the gutter and being yelled at by whores and taking knives away from greaseballs in zoot suits. But all that ain’t enough to make us entirely happy. We got to have you.

The “you” of the quote is Philip Marlowe, whom the police accuse of withholding evidence on two icepick murders and waltzing scot-free because of his private investigator’s license.

Chandler’s descriptions of night in L.A. rise almost to the verge of poetry:

I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupés and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.

Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you’re not human tonight.

Not human? Hardly: No one is more human than Marlowe. He is like the knight in Albrecht Dürer’s “Knight, Death, and Devil,” as shown below:

Knight, Death, and the Devil

Poor Marlowe, he doesn’t even have the friendship of a dog as shown in the engraving above.

L. A. Writers: Ry Cooder (?!)

Master of the Slide Guitar and ... Writer?

Master of the Slide Guitar and … Noir Writer?

So you think I’m kidding, do you? You think I don’t know that Ry Cooder is a musician? Aha, but in 2011 that same Ry Cooder wrote a book of short stories published by City Lights, entitled Los Angeles Stories. These stories, set between 1940 and the 1950s, are not only great L. A. Noir, but they sing with their own unique brand of chicken skin music. John Lee Hooker puts in an appearance, as does Charlie Parker. And the stories are rife with musical references:

Four Chinese girls were sitting at the corner table laughing and drinking. They were all excited about the dance hall where they’d been and the swing band they saw and the musicians they liked. I knew the place, the Zenda Ballroom, on Seventh and Figueroa. Tetsu Bessho and his Nisei Serenaders played there every Monday night. Jimmy Araki, the sax player, he was sharp. Joe Sakai was cute. The girls spoke English with a lot of hip slang, like musicians use, and as far as I could tell they were no different from any other American girls, except they were Chinese.

In fact, Cooder has a real ear for the race and ethnicity of his characters, from black musicians to Mexican Pachucos to white trailer trash to Chinese cooks.

Born in Santa Monica, he also has a great sense of place. We see Chavez Ravine before Dodger Stadium was built, the old Bunker Hill neighborhood, Playa Del Rey, Venice, and even Santa Monica.

Los Angeles Stories consists of eight tales, one better than the other. Insofar as I know, this is the only fiction he ever wrote; but I hope it is not the last. He has a great turn of phrase, as in “I am happy to have a little luck once and [sic] a while…. Too much, and fate pays a call. La Visita, my grandmother called it.”

There’s even nifty song lyrics:

Too many Johnnys, ’bout to drive me out of my mind
Yes, too many Johnnys, ’bout to drive me out of my mind
It have wrecked my life an’ ruint my happy home

When I first got in town, I was walkin’ down Central Avenue
I heard people talkin’ about the Club Rendezvous
I decided to drop in there that night, and when I got there
I said yes, people, man they was really havin’ a ball, yes I know!
Boogie!

I might cut you, I might shoot you, I jus’ don’ know
Yes, Johnny, I might cut you, I might shoot you, but I jus’ don’ know
Gonna break up this signifyin’,
’Cause somebody got to bottle up and go

I know that they gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. In my humble opinion, Ry Cooder is even a better writer. Believe it!

 

L.A. Writers: James Ellroy’s Dark Places

James Ellroy, Age 10, with His Murdered Mother

James Ellroy, Age 10, and His Murdered Mother

Given his childhood, it is no wonder that the vision of crime novelist James Ellroy is full of dark places. At the age of 10, he experienced being orphaned when his divorced mother, Jean, was raped and murdered. To this date, the crime has not been solved. But it has resonated through the work of its littlest victim.

To date, I have read seven of his novels, most of which are set in Los Angeles. You can believe me when I say that the author’s L.A., the sun doesn’t shine much. He is perhaps most famous for his L.A. Quartet, which consists of:

  • The Black Dahlia (1987)
  • The Big Nowhere (1988)
  • L.A. Confidential (1990)
  • White Jazz (1992)

As a reviewer for National Public Radio wrote, “His L.A. might not be a city of angels, but the devils he conjures up tell one hell of a tale.”

At times, Ellroy twists the English language into a strange rhythm, as if he were the American Louis Ferdinand Céline. Some of his books, such as White Jazz and American Tabloid, are sometimes difficult to read because of their driving, staccato style. But the energy keeps you moving along. When you are finished with one of his books, you need to relax a bit.

I just finished reading Blood on the Moon (1984), which is set on an axis from West Hollywood (“Boys’ Town”) to Silverlake, with occasional visits to the LAPD’s Parker Center downtown. The novel has a fine local feel that is the hallmark of a real L.A. writer. He may have set some stories elsewhere, but L.A. is somehow the real center of his oeuvre.

Below is a picture of the writer as he is today:

James Ellroy Today

James Ellroy Today

I met the author several years ago when he spoke at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival back when it was still being held at UCLA. I remember his strange description of how he spent his hours alone in the dark, carrying on imaginary conversations with women who were not in the room with him.

Dark. Strange. Indeed—but also brilliant.

 

L.A. Writers: Tyler Dilts

An Up-and-Coming Police Procedural Mystery Writer

An Up-and-Coming Police Procedural Mystery Writer

Actually Tyler Dilts is more of a Long Beach writer than an L.A. writer. I find that exciting because he writes about an interesting locale about which most people know very little. There have been writers about Beverly Hills and Hollywood before, but both places are way too enshrouded in their own myths. Long Beach is the 36th largest city in the United States, and the 7th largest in the State of California. It is an interesting city in its own right, and it is large and diverse enough to sustain a series of crime novels set within its borders.

To date, there are four novels in the Long Beach homicide series:

  • A King of Infinite Space (2009)
  • The Pain Scale (2012)
  • A Cold and Broken Hallelujah (2014)
  • Come Twilight (2016)

All four feature Long Beach Homicide Detective Danny Beckett and his partner, Jennifer Tanaka. Beckett. In the first novel, Tyler’s wife dies in a car crash on Intersate-5. In the second book, Danny is sidelined with pain in his hand to his shoulder for an entire year, but he manages to go on.

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah was the first Dilts I had read, in Cusco, Peru, of all places. It is about the murder of a homeless man. In an interview with Craig Lancaster, Dilts describes his novel thus:

At the opening of the new novel, Danny’s come to terms with much of what was haunting him in the first two books, but a murder he investigates—a homeless man who is burned to death by a group of teenagers—tests his resolve, especially in mourning his late wife, who also died by burning. Danny’s the kind of detective who carries the weight of the past with him. It’s a quality that is certainly not healthy for him, but it keeps him connected to the victims of the crimes he investigates and allows him to maintain a sense of empathy. He knows that it is his greatest strength as a detective, so he can’t bring himself to let go, even though he’d be healthier and happier if he did.

As for the fourth book, I am reading that now.

The latest Novel by Dilts

The latest Novel by Dilts

What I like about the Danny Beckett novels is the empathy he feels for the characters with whom he comes into contact. He himself lives a life of occasionally disabling physical pain. Yet he works well with his colleagues in the LBPD and with both witnesses and even suspects. While there is no romance as such between Beckett and his partner Jennifer Tanaka, there is a closeness and mutual consideration that could potentially develop into one.

Tyler Dilts is the son of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detective. In the Craig Lancaster interview, he continues:

My father was Sheriff’s Deputy for Los Angeles County. He worked in quite a few different capacities—in the county jails, on patrol, as a trainer at the academy, and as a detective. I think I realized that I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps sometime in high school. But I didn’t know what path I would take until I got to college and discovered theatre. I got my BA in Acting and Directing and spent several years working in theatre in LA. I’m a big guy and found myself getting typecast, so a good friend, after hearing me complaining about the fourth time I played Lennie in Of Mice and Men, suggested that I start writing my own plays. That led me back to grad school, this time in English Lit and Creative Writing. In a way, writing about Danny Beckett feels like coming full circle and returning to that desire to follow in my father’s footsteps.

Dilts is still early in his writing career. I look forward to following it with great interest.

 

 

L.A. Writer: John Fante

John Fante, L.A. Novelist, Short Story Writer, and Scriptwriter

John Fante, L.A. Novelist, Short Story Writer, and Scriptwriter

This is a series about writers whose work is predominantly set in Los Angeles.Last Month, I wrote about Eve Babitz (who is still alive).  I am wondering whether to open this series up to people who came from other countries, such as Aldous Huxley or Raymond Chandler, who have written works that have added to the Southern California scene. Omitted will be writers like Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust) who are primarily oddities or one-shots.

At the corner of West 5th Street and South Grand Avenue, hard by the Los Angeles Central Library, is a sign commemorating John Fante Square (see below), just on the edge of the old Bunker Hill neighborhood made famous by the writer’s Arturo Bandini novels. These include:

  • Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938)
  • The Road to Los Angeles (1936, Published 1985)
  • Ask the Dust (1939)
  • Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982)

The best of them that I have read is Ask the Dust, which I finished reading this morning in the Central Library just outside the foot of Bunker Hill, where Fante and his hero Bandini lived.

Sign Commemorating John Fante Square with the Tower of the Central Library

Sign Commemorating John Fante Square with the Tower of the Central Library

Arturo Bandini wanted more than anything else to be a great writer, but we see him on the edge of poverty and trying unsuccessfully to find a love interest—in the worst possible way. His choice in Ask the Dust is a hophead Mexican waitress named Camilla Lopez with whom he has a love/hate relationship that ends badly. He is torn between his Italian Catholic upbringing and the glitzy Hollywood life of famous writers and film people.

It is in no way a Hollywood novel. In fact, Bandini and Lopez don’t even drive through Hollywood or have any interest in seeing films together.

Today, Bunker Hill is no longer a ghetto of cheap boarding houses; rather, it is full of high rise banks and corporate headquarters that tower over the lowlands of Downtown L.A. The old funicular, Angel’s Flight, which rises to the top of Bunker Hill from Hill Street across from the Grand Central Market is still in existence, though it is not presently in operation.

The life of John Fante has a particular interest for me because the end of his life was characterized by severe diabetes. In 1978, he went blind. Subsequently, he lost both of his legs to the disease. He died in 1983 at the age of 74.

 

LA Writer: Eve Babitz

Eve Babitz Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp

Eve Babitz Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp

This is the start of a new series of blogs by me to be called “LA Writer.” Los Angeles has its own literary scene, some native born, some expatriate, and some just passing through. I plan to make at least one entry in this series each month.

You are a famous French painter and chess master named Marcel Duchamp. It is October 1963, and you are at the Pasadena Art Museum to attend the opening of a show dedicated to your work, mostly from the earlier part of the century. You are seated at a chessboard. Across from you is a nude 20-year-old who is, in many ways, the numero uno L.A. babe of the 1960s. Her name? Eve Babitz.

All you could say? “Alors!

Eve didn’t win the chess game, but she won the match. It didn’t take long before she was widely known. Her boyfriends included Jim Morrison of the Doors, Ed Rucha, Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, and practically everyone who was anyone in the world of art and entertainment. The chess game was just a start.

She is also the author of a semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional memoir entitled Eve’s Hollywood, which shows her to have been wide awake in a decade in which many were half-asleep at best. Not only is she an excellent writer: She designed scores of album covers for rock bands—and you know that album covers of the time are some of the most memorable icons of the 60s.

Eve Batitz by Ed Rucha

Eve Batitz by Ed Rucha

Eve’s style is all her own. It’s the way a beautiful and confident young woman who was on top of the world—but who had a serious brain—would write. For example, about the city of her birth:

Culturally, L.A. has always been a humid jungle alive with seething L.A. projects that I guess people from other places just can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like L.A., anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in L.A., to choose it and be happy here. When people are not happy, they fight against L.A. and say it’s a “wasteland” and other helpful descriptions.

That leaves out Woody Allen.

Take, for example, this description as to why quit being a Brownie:

In grammar there is a noun and there are adjectives. Adjectives modify the noun, they alter it and cramp its style. I didn’t want to be a Brownie girl. So I quit the Brownies.

And how’s this for a mission statement:

What I wanted, although at the time I didn’t understand what the thing was because no one ever tells you anything until you already know it, was everything.

Eve Babitz was a gorgeous young woman at the top of the world who knew what she liked and was not afraid to talk about it in a way that was both interesting and all her own. She writes with a supreme confidence in a slightly unorthodox, yet highly workable style, that is highly engaging.

In my review of Eve’s Hollywood for Goodreads.Com, I wrote:

When I arrived in Los Angeles between Christmas and New Years in 1966, I was fully prepared to “put up with” the place while my heart remained in … Cleveland, for God’s sake! I am sad to say it took a number of years before I woke up and let the magic of the place begin to work on me. Those first few years I now regard as “the lost years.” I studied film history and criticism at UCLA, saw thousands of movies, but was oblivious to the flower-scented air, redolent with night-blooming jasmine.

Now I have found a writer who has helped reconcile me to my own past: It is Eve Babitz, whose book Eve’s Hollywood covers my black-out years. Eve was born in L.A. of artistic parents and lived in Hollywood, living life to the fullest—sleeping with the likes of Jim Morrison of the Doors, artist Ed Rucha, and numerous other males known for beauty and/or brains.

Eve’s Hollywood is available in a paperback edition published by New York Review Books.