As an L.A. native who grew up in the shadow of Hollywood, I've long been fascinated by classic noir literature. Authors like Raymond Chandler and James Cain were my touchstones, and I dreamed of escaping into their dark and alluring world. But if you really want to know why I wrote this book, well, it started with a dress. 

I was 18 when I bought it for $5 at a vintage clothing store, a glamorous frock of black crepe that clung and draped with such panache that the girl who looked back in the mirror might have stepped out of the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub, circa 1949. 

Back then, I had no idea that the designer of my dress had worked as a costumer for the studios, leaving in the late 1940s to launch her own line. All I knew was that the elegant label in cursive writing -- "Dorothy O'Hara, California" -- had a tantalizing, noiry magic all its own. 

But those were the punk years, and the nightclubs I frequented were a far cry from Hollywood's Golden Age. Eventually spilled beer, perspiration and fraying seams took their toll on my lovely frock. 

By then, the dress and the world it evoked had become part of my inner landscape. Driving around L.A., I saw ghosts on every streetcorner, heard snatches of big band music on the wind, sipped bourbon in oak-paneled bars on foggy, neon-lit nights. 

Eventually I became a reporter, then a novelist. My books filtered Chandler's Los Angeles through a 21st century lens. 

But somewhere in my head, a 1940s soundtrack kept playing. I pictured a girl in her 20s, bantering with gangsters and crooked cops and Hollywood special effects whizzes, living in a rooming house with aspiring starlets, criss-crossing the city by trolley and slipping into my Dorothy O'Hara cocktail frock for a night of dancing at the Mocambo. 

In my imagination that girl already existed, I just didn't know her story yet. Then one day while researching Hollywood's Golden Age, I ran across an L.A. Times story by Cecilia Rasmussen about Jean Spangler, a Hollywood starlet who vanished without a trace in October of 1949. 

Jean disappeared two years after the Black Dahlia murder after telling her mother that she was going out on a night shoot. When I examined the characters that swirled around her, I knew I had found the inspiration for my next novel 

Jean had a violent ex-husband fighting a custody battle for their only child. She'd partied in Palm Springs with two associates of LA gangster Mickey Cohen who also disappeared mysteriously that fall. Her purse eventually turned up in L.A.'s Griffith Park, bearing a cryptic note to a mysterious "Kirk" that suggested she might have been pregnant and was seeking an abortion. 

It soon emerged that Jean had just filmed a movie with Kirk Douglas. The handsome star said he only knew the actress casually, they hadn't been having an affair and he knew nothing about her death. After interviewing him, the police agreed. 

As I read, I realized that Jean Spangler was the embodiment of many things that fascinated me about that era—and that her very desires and dreams had made her vulnerable. She symbolized every modern girl who yearned for independence in 1949, a time when society was lurching back toward more traditional roles. And she disappeared into thin air, creating the perfect mystery template. 

Jean's body was never found and the puzzle was never solved, but almost 60 years later, I had no interest in recounting the real story. I wanted to write a novel with new characters that would bring the world of 1949 Hollywood to life in all its brawling, contradictory glory. 

It was a fascinating and transitional time to write about—just after World War II, at the beginning of the Atomic Age and the Cold War, just before the conservative 1950s. Los Angeles was teeming with intrigue and crime: a mob war raged between Mickey Cohen and Jack Dragna for control of LA's turf and there were shootouts on the Sunset Strip. The police were notoriously corrupt. (Both the LAPD Chief and his deputy were indicted that summer). It was the waning days of the studio star system, the dawn of television. We had the Hollywood Blacklist, the rise of lurid tabloids like "Confidential," closeted gay actors and the explosion of suburbia. 

It was also the Golden Era of movie special effects. 

I've always been intrigued by the inner workings of the Dream Factory, the technician magicians who create the illusion of reality up on the big screen. I also knew I needed to infuse my 1940s world with fresh ahem, blood and find a new window into a Hollywood world people that people already knew so well. 

So I decided to create a character who was a special effects wizard. Through him, I could explore the world of movie animation long before Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas made CGI geeks hip and trendy. 

I had the great good fortune, around this time, to meet the legendary Ray Harryhausen. With his mentor Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen pioneered stop motion animation. Harryhausen was 86 and hale and hearty when I interviewed him at Dark Delicacies Bookstore in Burbank and learned what the special effects world was like in 1949, the year "Mighty Joe Young" came out. (Harryhausen did most of the animation on "Joe;" O'Brien had animated King Kong). 

Thanks to the generosity of Chiodo Brothers Productions, especially Stephen Chiodo, I also toured an animation studio and watched stop-motion in progress and was greatly impressed by the painstaking detail, dedication and artistry involved. In addition, I read several books and watched documentaries and the DVD of the original "Might Joe Young" in which Harryhausen describes how he filmed each scene. 

In reading oral histories, I was also struck by what a small town Hollywood was, even 50 years ago, and how movie stars were just part of the landscape. You'd see Marlon Brando shopping with his wife at the Hollywood Ranch Market or Montgomery Clift studying his lines at the local coffee shop. You could sit in on Steve Allen's midnight radio shows, watch Frank Sinatra record at Capitol Records. The access was amazing. 

Emerging from the dream world of my writing, I'd grow melancholy at how much of historic Los Angeles was gone. We all yearn for authenticity, we're nostalgic for the past, yet we systematically destroy what made us unique throughout the world. 

On most days, it's difficult to envision how the city must have looked in 1949. But cock your head and squint and it falls into focus, in the bas relief facade of a downtown hotel, the deco tile of an old bar, the scattered oil derricks that still pump in LA's forgotten quadrants, and in thrift stores where forlorn treasures drape on hangers like bashful starlets, waiting to be discovered once more. And hopefully, in the pages of this book.