Los Angeles Noir



I write crime novels now, but for a decade before that, I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Although I'm a native, there are still places I don't know and the landscape changes at such warp speed that it's impossible to keep up. Journalism gave me a passport to excavate the city's layers, nose behind the scenes and interview everyone who wanted to talk and many who didn't.

Walking into the newsroom each morning, I never knew whether I'd face a triple homicide at South Pasadena High, a celebrity stalking in Malibu or a brown bear that lumbered down from the San Gabriel Mountains to splash in someone's pool. The city was mythic and alive, pulsing with a thousand short stories unfolding all at once, tales of heartbreak and triumph, survival despite incredible odds and tragedy so horrifying it could have come straight from the ancient Greeks. 

Each night when I got home, the voices of Los Angeles played like a broken tape loop in my brain. As time passed, I began to yearn to tell these stories unfettered by the constraints of journalism. Eventually I left the paper and started writing fiction. And if my books have a noir sensibility, well, it's a long and hallowed tradition among the city's writers. L.A.'s just a noir place. 

So when Akashic publisher Johnny Temple asked if I'd be willing to edit an anthology of new fiction called LOS ANGELES NOIR, my first thought was that it was a great idea but surely someone had already done it. To my surprise, no one had. There's a tabloid photo book with that title and a noir cinema book. But what you hold in your hands is the first collection of Los Angeles noir fiction that we know of. 

I think you'll agree that it's about time. Los Angeles is the birthplace of all things noir, starting with the Depression and World War II-era films that oozed an edgy fatalism and sexy recklessness and mirrored the social anxiety of the times. Many of film noir's architects were refugees from Hitler's Europe, steeped in Expressionism and existential despair, and they brought that sensibility to the shadows, silhouettes, urban labyrinths and hard-boiled plots of their movies. Over time, this narrative style infiltrated our waking lives and even our dreams, helping to define how we see the city and to shape the stories we tell about ourselves. 

More than a half century later, Hollywood continues to cast a giant shadow. Maybe it's the seductive blur of artifice and reality, the possibility of shucking off the past like last year's frock and reinventing yourself beyond your wildest dreams. Maybe it's the desperation that descends when the dream goes sour, the duplicity that lurks behind the beauty, the rot of the jungle flowers, the rip tides off the sugar sand beaches that carry off the unwary. 

Writers like James Cain, Dorothy B. Hughes, Nathanael West, Chester Himes and Raymond Chandler understood both the hope and the terror that Los Angeles inspires and harnessed this duality to create their masterpieces. Hollywood, always a dowsing rod of the culture, reflected it back to the world through film. Even essayists from Carey McWilliams to Joan Didion to Mike Davis gave us prose about Los Angeles that's shot through with noir imagery. When you consider the earthquakes, the fires, the mudslides, the riots, the poverty, the glamor, the wealth, the crime, the crackpots, the cults, the gangs, the scandals, perhaps it's inevitable. 

Of course, Los Angeles has changed beyond recognition since Phillip Marlowe stalked the mean streets. Today's suburbs were orange groves in Chandler's day, and many of the ethnic enclaves that make the city such a vibrant Pacific Rim megalopolis hadn't yet taken root. But the noir essence of Los Angeles never really went away, it just morphed into something more colorful and polyglot. Twenty-first century L.A. is more noir than ever, a surreal sprawl where the First World and the Third World live cheek by jowl and people are connected across lines of race and class and geography, especially when crime, secrets and passion intersect. 

With LOS ANGELES NOIR, we've brought you the ethos of Chandler and Cain filtered through a contemporary lens, showcasing some of the most innovative and celebrated writers working today. Open these pages and you'll embark on a literary travelogue that stretches from the mountains through the hardscrabble flats to the barrios and middle-class suburbs, the mansions of the wealthy and the shores of the Pacific Ocean where we finally run out of continent. The breadth of talent on display is as exciting and diverse as the city itself. 

We've got National Book Award finalist Susan Straight writing about a group of Rio Seco characters who wash up at a Downtown L.A. bar called the Golden Gopher. Janet Fitch takes us inside a Los Feliz love triangle that evokes the movie 'Sunset Boulevard," millennial style. Michael Connelly dreams up a classic noir story set on iconic Mulholland Drive, which 'rode like a snake' along the city's backbone and Robert Ferrigno's Yancy delivers a soliloquy about a heist gone terribly wrong in Belmont Shores. Neal Pollack visits a gambling casino in City of Commerce, where a mafioso and his thuggish bodyguards await the unlucky. LOS ANGELES NOIR also marks the fiction debut of KPCC host, NPR commentator and L.A. Times columnist Patt Morrison, who weighs in with a sly, Celia-Brady-like romp through old Beverly Hills, where losing the best table at a top restaurant is akin to a dagger through the heart anywhere else. 

There are also newer talents like Naomi Hirahara, whose tale of obsession set in a Koreatown day spa evokes Patricia Highsmith. Many of these stories overlap and layer like the city itself, ending, in true LA commuter style, far from where they began. The protagonist in Gary Phillip's story ticks off the changes in his neighborhood - a bar on Wilshire now engulfed by Koreatown, the Ambassador Hotel where JFK was shot falling to the wrecker's ball, his own Mid-City streets invaded by cacti-planting, Southwest-decorating homeowners - as if to ground himself amidst an ever-shifting reality. Brian Ascalon Roley's working class Mar Vista families watch uneasily as yuppies build three-story glass-and-steel lofts. 

This anthology also conjures up fictional landmarks straight out of our collective unconsciousness. When Emory Holmes II describes the Chateau Rouge, a 10-storied black marble curvilinear structure on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard built by L.A. architect Paul Williams that "looked like a fat stack of bop records ready to be played," we think, oh yeah, that place. If it doesn't exist, it should

But then, Los Angeles has never been defined by physical geography—it's a grab-bag of ethnic clusters, neighborhoods, communities, subcultures. A state of mind. Lienna Silver's world of Russian immigrants who carry memories of their homeland like a snail's shell and Christopher Rice's tale of two young gay men nearing the end of a relationship might take place on different planets instead of four miles apart. And Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, San Marino, Commerce and Belmont Shores aren't even in L.A. proper, but they're part of the recombinant DNA that is helping Los Angeles evolve into something so new we can't even imagine what it will look like five years from now. 

What we can be sure of is that it will remain a funhouse mirror, reflecting back into infinity, and that we'll glimpse bits that look frighteningly familiar. Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes wouldn't recognize the Chinatown of Jim Pascoe's story - whose tiny crooked alleys now house hipster bars and art galleries - but he'd sense the same despair. Diana Wagman captures the eerie dislocation of Westchester, a 1950s model suburb under the shadow of LAX where body parts might rain from the sky. The detective in Hector Tobar's story is obsessed with the damage done by kids with guns. Soon after Tobar turned in his story, a 14-year-old boy in LA shot and killed an 11-year old over a bike. 

Tobar's story is set in working class East Hollywood and his Armenian- and Mexican-American detective duo reminisce about the moldering movie star photos of famous alums at their alma mater, Hollywood High. When the authors in this collection write about The Industry, they refract it through an oblique angle - Janet Fitch's 70s actress hiding away in a decaying Los Feliz mansion; Scott Phillips' sexy Valley cocktail waitress whose claim to fame lies in the title "The Girl Who Kissed Barnaby Jones;" Morrison's security chief for the studios who quashed the story about the producer bludgeoned by his own jewel-encrusted dildo. 

These are stories that only begin after the tourists go home and the klieg lights turn off. It's the city examining itself through a gritty, glamorous, tawdry and desperate lens and finding grifters, gamblers, newly arrived immigrants, third generation bluebloods, confused kids, millionaires, has-been actors, murderers, meth addicts and traitors of the heart. 

It's impossible to distill L.A. into one noir story. That's why we've brought you seventeen. LOS ANGELES NOIR creates a kaleidescopic template for what it means to live and die in L.A. today. Read. Shudder. Enjoy. 

—Denise Hamilton
Editor, Los Angeles Noir
January, 2007