If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles then you know that it’s vibrant, beautiful (in some places), and has one of the most inviting climates anywhere. It’s physically gorgeous, it’s home to some of the wealthiest people in the U.S., it’s got world-class restaurants and fashion houses and of course, it’s home to the U.S. television and film industries. The music industry is a giant there, too. It’s also got desperate poverty, and the terrible economic and racial divisions that continue to plague the nation have played themselves out there. And with the city’s incredible wealth has also come some really deep-seated corruption, exploitation and more. With those factors, it’s not surprising at all that Los Angeles is the setting for an awful lot of crime fiction. One post doesn’t give nearly enough space to talk about all of the Los Angeles-based crime fiction out there, so here are just a few examples.
Beginning with The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe showed readers the seamier side of the wealthy and powerful of Los Angeles. In that novel, Marlowe is hired by General Guy Sternwood to stop a blackmail attempt. It seems that bookseller Arthur Geiger is blackmailing Sternwood’s daughter Carmen; this isn’t the first time Carmen’s been blackmailed either as she’s not exactly a demure young woman. What starts as a simple investigation of a blackmail scheme ends up dragging Marlowe into a very complicated web of backstabbing, a pornography scandal and exploitation. Chandler’s work helped shape the modern “hard-boiled” novel and the wealth, self-entitlement and shallowness of several of the characters in this novel are a good match for the setting and the sub-genre.
Attempted blackmail is the starting point for The Case of the Velvet Claws which features another Los Angeles sleuth, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Mason is a Los Angeles attorney who is absolutely and completely committed to his clients. He finds that commitment hard to keep though when he is hired by Eva Griffin. Griffin tells Mason that Hollywood tabloid reporter Fank Locke has proof that she’s having an affair with up-and-coming politician Hamilton Burke. If Griffin doesn’t pay up, Locke will publish the story in his tabloid Spicy Bits. Mason agrees to take this case and tries to get Locke to stop blackmailing his client. Things get complicated though when Mason finds out that Locke’s boss – and Griffin’s husband – is George Belter, owner of Spicy Bits. Now Mason realises that Griffin hasn’t been telling him everything, not even her real name. Then one night George Belter is shot. His widow is of course a prime suspect, and Mason continues to represent her interests even though he doesn’t trust anything she says. He’ll have to find out the truth about Belter’s murder, despite his client, if he’s going to clear her of murder.
Several of Ellery Queen’s novels are set in Los Angeles too. In fact, The Devil to Pay, The Four of Hearts and The Origin of Evil are sometimes called The Hollywood Murders because of their setting. The storyline for these novels is that Queen has been hired to work as a screenwriter for Hollywood “wonder boy” Jacques Butcher. He’s not given anything to do though and is bored, restless and increasingly frustrated with Butcher. So he’s willing to help out when in The Devil to Pay, Walter Spaeth asks him to serve as proxy at an auction of the personal property of Rhys Jardin. Jardin is the father of Spaeth’s love interest Valerie Jardin, and Spaeth wants to do what he can to take care of her without embarrassing her. When Spaeth’s successful father and Jardin’s business partner Solly Spaeth is murdered, the Jardin family is under suspicion and so is Spaeth’s mistress Winnie Moon. In the end, Queen figures out who the murderer is, while still waiting to start work as a screenwriter. He gets his chance in The Four of Hearts, and gets involved once again in murder when the two lead actors of the film he’s screenwriting are murdered. In The Origin of Evil, Queen’s no longer working as a screenwriter; he’s taken a house and some quiet time to write. That’s how he gets involved in the death of Leander Hill, co-owner of a successful jewel business. Hill’s daughter Lauren believes that her father was murdered and that his business partner Roger Priam may be the next victim. Queen finds out this case has everything to do with the business partners’ history.
We get quite another view of Los Angeles through the eyes of Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. Rawlins was laid off from his wartime job at an airplane manufacturing plant. With no source of income, he accepts an offer in Devil in a Blue Dress to help find Daphne Monet, the missing girlfriend of DeWitt Albright. Albright knows that he’ll stand out too much as a white man in the black community of Watts, where Rawlins lives. But Rawlins knows everyone in that community and agrees to start asking questions. That’s how he gets involved in his new career of “doing favours for friends.” This series gives readers a vivid portrait of life in Watts during the postwar years and a look at Los Angeles from a different cultural perspective.
Megan Abbott’s Die A Little, which takes place at about the same time, shows us what life was like in the Los Angeles/Hollywood suburbs of the early 1950’s. In that novel, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King begins to worry when her brother Bill falls in love with and then marries former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. For Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law. As she does so, she finds herself both put off by and drawn to Alice’s life. And the more drawn to Alice she is, the more King learns about the seamier side of Hollywood, including drugs, prostitution and physical abuse. Then there’s a death that could very well have involved Alice. Now, King decides to go even more deeply into Alice’s enigmatic life to find out what really happened, telling herself that she wants to protect her brother.
So what’s today’s Los Angeles like? Just ask Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. Bosch is a cop who’s been with the L.A.P.D. on and off for a long time. Bosch’s half-brother Haller’s a defense attorney who’s been known to use his car as a “traveling office.” In the novels that feature these sleuths we see all of the sides of this complex city. We also see some of the trends and changes that have affected people’s lives. The two sleuths investigate mortgage fraud, poverty, racism, child pornography, police and civil corruption, drug trafficking, gang activity, and of course, the film industry among many other things. Neither sleuth would really be happy anywhere else, but neither is blind to the city’s many problems. Oh, and these novels also include natural disasters that Los Angelenos have to cope with such as earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides.
You can also ask Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike what today’s Los Angeles is like. Together they’ve investigated spoiled Hollywood directors, “behind the scenes” television and film power brokers, the drug and prostitution scenes, Japanese mafiosos and police corruption among other things. Pike owns a gun shop where he’s seen more than his share of gun trafficking and gang activity. Cole’s been hired by all sorts of clients so he too has seen all sides of Los Angeles. And let’s face it; only in L.A. would a detective who has a Mickey Mouse clock in his office be taken seriously.
There are other authors such as Stephen J. Cannell, Daniel Depp (yes, Johnny Depp’s brother), Marshall Karp and Pamela DuMond who’ve shown us the ups and downs, the funny and tragic, the beautiful and the ugly sides of Los Angeles. It’s far too big, complex and diverse a city for one author to tell it all.
City of Angels? Um…..not really
ps. The top ‘photo is of just one street in just one part of Los Angeles. The other ‘photo was taken on Hollywood Boulevard, on the Walk of Fame. Oh, now come on! Do you have to wonder whose star I would actually make the effort to find and photograph?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Los Angelenos.