Los Angeles Noir 2
The second volume of the Edgar® Award winning LOS ANGELES NOIR is edited by Denise Hamilton and features stories by Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ross Macdonald, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, Chester Himes, Leigh Brackett, Margaret Millar, Jervey Tervalon, Yxta Maya Murray, Naomi Hirahara and others. The stories span the 1930s-1990s and each takes place in a different Los Angeles neighborhood.
"Like Manhattan Noir 2 and other previous "classics" entries in Akashic's noir series, this entry, with its high-quality stories from such genre masters as Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, outshines the typical all-original anthology in the series. Hamilton has been wise to select lesser-known works by legendary writers, guaranteeing that the volume will appeal both to fans unfamiliar with the stories and readers new to their hard-edged prose. The two best come from the pens of husband and wife Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar. Macdonald's Lew Archer looks into an actress's disappearance in his taut "Find the Woman," while Millar's "The People Across the Canyon," about a young girl who forms an unhealthy attachment to some new neighbors, offers an unconventional look at the darkness in the human soul."
LOS ANGELES NOIR 2 is already a bestseller at Book Soup in West Hollywood!
Read a Q&A with Denise
And watch for the Los Angeles Times Magazine April issue, which will feature an essay on L.A. Noir by Denise as well as her list of "Top 20 Southern California Noir." Available online April 1 at www.latimes.com.
Los Angeles is a young city. As recently as the 1860s, it was still a dusty Spanish pueblo where the Zanjero who regulated the water flow from the L.A. River earned more than the mayor.
Unlike the Eastern seaboard, whose world of arts and letters predate the American Revolution, Los Angeles literature bloomed late. But our scant history and tradition freed us up to create new myths. We made it up as we went along.
Visiting writers were both intrigued and appalled. They praised the city's golden light and stunning landscapes while damning its vulgarity, hedonism and the surreal spectacle of Hollywood.
But love it or hate it, they came to toil in the Dream Factory.
Los Angeles was the most alluring femme fatale imaginable, dangling glittering wealth and reinvention. In return, all she wanted was a little wordsmithing. How difficult could it be?
And so they came—Cornell Woolrich, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, James Cain, Chester Himes, Horace McCoy, Paul Cain, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway. They were miserable, of course, punching studio clocks and having their work rewritten by less talented writers.
But luckily for us, many used their sunny new digs as settings for fiction. Some of what they wrote, including Fitzgerald's nuanced Hollywood stories, aren't noir enough for this anthology. Others are too long, such as McCoy's dark masterpiece They Shoot Horses, Don't They? set amidst a Depression-era dance marathon on the Santa Monica pier.
But many of the genre's masters have sidled into this anthology. Perhaps the hardest boiled of them all is Paul Cain, whose prose explodes like a bullet from a bootlegger's gun. When not scripting for Hollywood under the name Peter Ruric, Cain wrote stories for trailblazing noir showcase Black Mask magazine and one novel, Fast One, before fading into alcoholic obscurity and dying forgotten in a shabby Hollywood apartment in 1966.
It's funny how two noir writers share the ultimate Biblical bad boy name—Cain. The better-known is James M. Cain, whose novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity ooze with sex, murder and betrayal. The movie adaptations are pretty twisted too—we all know Fred MacMurray's a goner as soon as Barbara Stanwyck opens that door. In this collection, James M. Cain's story about a Depression-era hobo riding the rails into town offers an even bleaker take on crime and punishment.
Then there's The Night's For Crying by Chester Himes. Set near historically black Central Avenue, this story packs more love, brutality and revenge into 5 short pages than most 500-page novels.
Throughout this anthology, characters swill bootleg liquor, take bribes, are hooked on morphine, work as grifters, taxi dancers and hired guns, hang out at speakeasies and soda fountains and betray their lovers. Nobody dies naturally.
Most literary lions did their time in Hollywood, then went home. But for Raymond Chandler, whose name is indelibly linked to the city's dark glamour, L.A. was home. I'll Be Waiting shows the master stylist sketching out the white knight who would find his apotheosis in world-weary Philip Marlowe. The story's crisp dialogue and lyric descriptions of elegant hotels, mousy clerks, languid ladies and unsavory gangsters prefigure Chandler's classic novels.
Find the Woman, a story with a strong post-war flavor, provides an early look at another godfather of crime fiction—Ross Macdonald. Some critics argue that Macdonald, who stole his plots from Greek myth, was the best of the bunch. Woman, a twisty tale of family secrets and betrayal, introduces the tough yet compassionate private eye who'd earn acclaim in Macdonald's later novels as Lew Archer.
I've also included a tale of dark psychological suspense set in an un-named L.A. canyon by Macdonald's equally talented but lamentably lesser known wife Margaret Millar.
The truth is that early noir was a man's world where sexism prevailed.
All the more impressive, then, that the hard-boiled writing of Leigh Brackett stands up to anything their male contemporaries ever dreamed up.
Brackett's 1949 story I Feel Bad Killing You certainly wins the 'best title' award. It also includes the most diabolical scene with a cigarette lighter ever written that contains no actual violence. Director Howard Hawks was such a fan that he ordered his secretary to get "this guy Brackett" on board to help William Faulkner write the screenplay to The Big Sleep. Which Brackett did! She also wrote science fiction and ended her amazing 50-year career co-writing The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas.
I was especially interested in stories that reflected the city's historic diversity. Walter Mosley has written terrific novels about Easy Rawlins, a black, mid-century P.I., but the story in this collection features another memorable Mosley character—ex-con and reformed murderer Socrates Fortlow, who lives in a two-room apartment off an alley in Watts.
Naomi Hirahara takes us back to 1949 Terminal Island with The Chirashi Covenant, the tale of an adulterous young Japanese-American woman who married her husband in a World War internment camp. As the daughter of an L.A. Harbor fisherman, Helen Miura knows how to gut fish, a skill that finds grisly use before this story ends.
In The Kerman Kill, William Campbell Gault introduces an Armenian-American P.I. with a large boisterous family who munches lahmajun and hangs out in his Uncle Vartan's carpet store. And in 1970, back when homosexuality was still a relatively taboo subject, Joseph Hansen published his first novel about a gay insurance investigator named Dave Brandstetter, who investigates a murder in the story "Surf."
Moving east, the ever-reliable James Ellroy pens a furious tale of murder and deception in the West Adams district of Los Angeles just after World War II. Ellroy does impeccable historic research, and indeed this entire collection bristles with the evocative slang of various eras: ixnay, coppers, chumps, saps, shivs, cinch, dames, toot sweet, swells, rumdums, rye and girls who 'gargle' champagne.
Inevitably, some of the earlier stories reflect the racism, homophobia and religious prejudices of their times. But it's important to remember that crime fiction was the first to liberate language from the parlors of 'proper' society. As Chandler wrote to his publisher in explaining his use of bar-room vernacular: "I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks."
Swiss waiters have gone the way of metal Venetian blinds, so what exactly makes a story 'classic'? For starters, it has to have a 'historic' feel. That's why I included Kate Braveman'sStrange Tales From the Mekong Delta, a hallucinogenic, paranoid tale about the long shadow cast by the Vietnam War.
Jervey Tervalon's story Rika from his novel Understand This is a brilliant depiction of a crack-addled city just before the L.A. Riots of 1992. Yxta Maya Murray's story Lucia, excerpted from her powerful and moving novel Locas, recounts a girl gang leader plotting revenge for the shooting of one of her 'locas.' Set in the impoverished, as-yet ungentrified barrio of 1980s Echo Park, it's a gritty postcard from the recent past, just before the boho artists and yuppies took over.
With some of these stories, the challenge lay in tracking down the real-life identify of fictional neighborhoods. Is Brackett's 'Surfside' supposed to be Santa Monica? What canyon was Margaret Millar thinking of when she wrote her short story? Is Hansen's fictional beach community Surf a stand-in for Venice?
The sleuthing through old tales, dusty copies of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and long defunct magazines like Black Mask provided its own joys. I hope the stories in this volume convey the same thrilling sense of discovery and nostalgia to you, the reader.
—Denise Hamilton, March 2010
LOS ANGELES NOIR 2
Trade Paperback, Akashic Books, April 2010, ISBN-13: 978-1936070022