L.A. Literature

Ξ November 26th, 2007 | → 3 Comments | ∇ The Arts |

It’s been a slow week for postings here at York Boulevard what with Thanksgiving and all. One benefit of all the holiday travel was the opportunity to sit in my car for a couple of hours, snuggle up with about a million other commuters who all thought we were smarter than each other for leaving on Thursday, and not really care about the traffic because I had some great books on tape. The star of the trip was Robert Crais’ The Watchman, a great bit of L.A. Noir involving a salacious Beverly Hills socialite, an Ecuadorian drug-cartel, a terrorist financier, a wise-cracking PI, and his former Marine Force Recon partner. Besides being a great read (or listen), the story is book ended by a shootout at an Eagle Rock not-so-safe house and a hostage situation in Glassell Park. There was no mention of Highland Park, but the story got me thinking about my favorite LA novels. I whittled down the list to these ten, and as usual, they only reflect my opinion. I’m always looking for good fiction with a local setting so throw in your two cents if you see something I missed.

10. L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais – I was very tempted to go with Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer here (great premise about a criminal defense attorney who likes gangsta rap). However, Crais’ story about a serial killer out for revenge on an ex-cop gets the nudge for a beautiful closing few pages that may peg Los Angeles better than anything I’ve ever read.

9. The Watchman by Robert Crais – Aforementioned chase novel with excellent protagonists (who also appear in L.A. Requiem) and some surprisingly good character development for a plot-heavy thriller. Also, a few Northeast LA scenes and some Boyle Heights gangsters keep this prescient.

Concrete Blonde
8. Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly – I’ve really become a fan of the Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch novels. Bosch plays the Vietnam Vet Homicide Detective who plays by his own rules and always gets his man. Somehow, after more than a dozen novels, his character (while not fresh) has avoided becoming the cliché that it so easily could. So many of the mysteries are excellent, but I chose Concrete Blonde because it mixes LAPD procedural, mystery, and courtroom drama with a gaggle of murdered porn stars and a ball-breaking civil rights attorney to keep the pages turning. I also seriously considered Angel’s Flight. Connelly mostly sets his novels in Hollywood and the Valley but he has an excellent feel for the city.

7. The Road to Tamazunchale by Ron Arias – I’ll briefly break away from the L.A. Noir genre to give mention to a book I read during an independent study on urban literature while in college. If you’re a fan of Magic Realism (think Gabriel Garcia Marquez) but are tired of reading about Columbia, Arias sets his own Chicano story of the fantastic in the Eastside’s Elysian Park. The Los Angeles River is the most memorable character in the novel. Conversely, if you’re not a fan of Magic Realism, you might really enjoy Chilean author Alberto Fuguet, whose Las Peliculas de mi Vida (the Movies of My Life) is mostly set in Los Angeles.

6. Crying of Lot 49 by Tomas Pynchon – Just being caught reading a Pynchon novel makes you feel so erudite, don’t you think? I’m actually not a big Pynchon fan, (as I was forced to read all of his works up to Mason & Dixon in one summer course) but this postmodern read is uncharacteristically brief by Pynchon standards. Follow the Los Angeles Basin Odyssey of Ms. Oedipa Maas, her crazy husband Mucho Maas who works at KCUF radio, and her attempt to uncover a national mail conspiracy. The book is dripping with paranoia, communication breakdown, and postmodern chaos. If you like this novel, go on to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow. If you don’t, tell Pynchon, Nabokov, DeLilo, and their intelligentsia grad student fan base to write a cohesive story and fuck off. Either way, this is a great barometer of whether or not you’ll like postmodern literature.

5. LA Confidential by James Ellroy – We’ve all seen the movie, but pick up the novel and see why Ellroy is such a staple of LA literature. Many of his other books are just as excellent but he sometimes gets carried away with a stream of consciousness narration and uber-hip slang that can detract from the plot. LA Confidential generally steers clear of these pitfalls and instead focuses on crooked cops, the seedy underbelly of 1950s Hollywood, and all things neo-Noir.

4. If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes – I always liked the irony of dubbing Himes as “Black Noir”, but this novel of the empty promise of equality Los Angeles held for black southerners during World War Two is shockingly powerful. Himes has more hard-boiled credentials than most as he did hard time for a jewelry heist. In prison, he wrote much of this story of a shipyard worker who constantly lives in fear of the white power structure taking everything he has worked so hard for, and who ultimately decides that the only way to conquer this fear is to plot the murder of a white man.

LA Rex
3. LA Rex by Will Beall – Beall can rival Himes in terms of crime credentials but this author comes from the other side of the law. He is a current LAPD officer, and last I heard, he was working the gangs somewhere in South LA. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a party when I was loaned an advance copy of the novel from a mutual friend. The prose is reminiscent of Ellroy but the plot is so fantastical it borders on some form of Noir Magic Realism. Still, the hyper-violent plot is based on first hand experience with the insanity of life in Los Angeles. Pet Jaguars, riots, and crooked cops, make you want to take a shower in holy water after finishing this book. But that’s a good thing right?

The Big Sleep
2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – I love this book so much that I teach it in class. Chandler defined an entire genre of literature that is only recently receiving the critical attention it is due. This defines the Noir/Hard-boiled genre that many of the above writers have labored to copy. The convoluted plot is complete with the Femme Fatale embarrassing her oil rich daddy; a Santa Monica gangster running booze, gambling, and pornography; and the famous Philip Marlowe whose quick fists and even quicker wit, keep him trudging through the mire of 1930s Los Angeles. A word of warning: Chandler didn’t care if his plots made sense (he famously responded “I don’t know” to a telegram from Howard Hawks, who was making the film, asking who killed an ancillary character. Still, how can you not love a man who wrote “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”?

Day of the Locust
1. Day of the Locust by Nathanael West – West wrote this book while struggling as a screenplay writer in Hollywood. Set during the Great Depression, this novella examines the grotesque vapidity of the film industry and the empty promise of the Southern California Sunshine for hordes of Midwesterners who saw the city as an American El Dorado. West’s descriptions of the city at the novel’s opening and closing are unforgettable and remain accurate, in many respects, over 70 years later. Additionally, one of the main protagonists is a certain Homer J. Simpson who Matt Groening has claimed was not the genesis of his animated character. You read and be the judge.


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