Friday, September 9, 2022

Chris's Tour of LA's Underbelly - West Coast Noir Favorites!

If you like classic noir like I do, then chances are good you've probably made a few return visits, via the pages of a book at least, to the mean streets of the City of Angels. This isn't Randy Newman's city of sunshine and happy-as-can-be bums (yes, I know it's satire). Since Raymond Chandler imported a touch of Dashiell Hammett's style down the California coast, Los Angeles has been a go-to city for crime novelists to explore. And at 502 square miles (and nearly five thousand square miles to LA County!), there's been a lot of ground to cover over the past few years. Here are some of my all-time favorites.

Of course you can't talk about LA and hard boiled detective novels without mentioning Raymond Chandler, one of the old masters of the genre. Chandler's The Big Sleep was my introduction to reading "the good old stuff" years and years ago, but after reading all of the Philip Marlowe novels, my all-time favorite has got to be The Long Goodbye. If you want dark, if you want moody, this novel is the best. What I love about it is, to me, this is perhaps the book where Chandler digs deepest into what I see as one of his major themes - questions left unanswered, or, perhaps worse, questions to which the answers are unsatisfactory at best and leave you wondering, why, why, why?! This is the Chandler novel I return to over and over and have been wondering about for years. It's also got one of the best Chandler adaptations to make it to film, the one movie that I feel really gets the questioning, ground-ever-shifting-under-your-feet mood of the book right is the 1973 Robert Altman version, with Elliot Gould's pitch-perfect Marlowe.

Another classic noir era novelist who's maybe now a little less commonly known, at least outside of crime-fanatic circles, is Ross Macdonald, a writer whose work I admit to just coming to recently, in the form of a copy the Library of America collection of his novels of the 1950s (which is, alas, currently on backorder from the publisher). Macdonald, if the introductory material in this tomb is to be believed, was an heir apparent to Chandler, and reading these novels, it's not hard to see why. My favorite so far is LA region (particularly capturing some coastline locales) The Barbarous Coast. Pool clubs and movie producers and down and out ex-boxers and, of course, pretty young blondes with Hollywood dreams - this book has it all. I'd say Macdonald's writing is even moodier than Chandler and some other 'classic' writers, if that's possible - reading his sentences, you get razor-sharp descriptions that are, all the same, like looking at a scene through a room full of smoke. If you find one of his books, do yourself a favor, and snag it!

Of course you can't talk about Hollywood novels of crime without mentioning Elmore Leonard's riotous classic, Get Shorty. Now, that link will take you to the currently-available-to-order copy, but you'll note the cover is different the the one pictured at left. Which is because that's a picture of the mass-market (my love of the mass market style of book is another blog post, or perhaps an entire pocket-sized book, of its own for another day) copy that I toted around with me and read on a visit to LA some years ago. The perfect companion for a drive up into the Hollywood hills, I can confirm. And the ending of this one is one of the all-time best funny/violent gotchas in crime novel history, as far as I'm concerned. 

What's next on my LA crime tour? The more recent novel Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha is right at the top, which won, appropriately, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Here's the publisher copy: "A powerful and taut novel about racial tensions in Los Angeles, following two families, one Korean-American, one African-American, grappling with the effects of a decades-old crime." But what convinced me to snag a copy for my to-read stack? Probably this quote from Walter Mosley (whose Devil in a Blue Dress is a LA crime classic of note, too!): "Steph Cha fearlessly explores the duality of LA’s promise and betrayal, its vision of new beginnings and the brutal divisions that cut between race and class.  Cha takes her place as one of the city’s most eloquent storytellers in this soul-searching illumination." And if that's not enough, I also have our buyer Jason Kennedy in my ear about this book, as he loved it. He says: "The events that take place in Your House Will Pay will haunt me for some time come, as it follows the fallout to the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl in the nineties."

And what was the reason I sat down to write all of this anyway? Why, it's the fact that I want to declare a new addition to the list of classic Los Angeles noir: the Happy Doll series by author and showrunner Jonathan Ames. Only on its second book, The Wheel of Doll, this series is already off and running, and I LOVE it! 

The first book, A Man Named Doll, was one of my favorite books of last year - when it came out, I wrote this staff rec: "Just an odd fellow, his beloved dog, and a whole lot of dead bodies. This is crime fiction the way it was meant to be: sly, sad, and a little weird. And I love it. It’s also a Jonathan Ames book that feels like it was written by a Jonathan Ames character – read it as the book Ames’s Bored to Death alter ego broke out with. But then, don’t, because it’s not just a goof or some literary lark. Ames captures the soul of classic American noir with a perfect balance of violence, money, and irreverence. His Los Angeles is heir to the City of Angels as penned by Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard. The kind of book that reminds me why I fell in love with detective novels."

I'm reading The Wheel of Doll right now, and let me say two things: #1, this book is even better than the first one, something I didn't thing was possible, but Ames has leaned all the way into one of the things that classic noir does best, to examine the dark sides of life, the underbellies of cities and societies, without passing judgement or casting aside people whose lives have veered into territories that most of us can only hope we don't find ourselves visiting. And he does it with such compassion! Seriously, did you ever think you'd find yourself heartbroken over a suicidal, one-legged ex-stripper? Because you're about to. This book is at once darker, stranger, and even bigger-hearted than the first one.

And thing #2, I CANNOT WAIT to interview Jonathan Ames this coming Monday at the store. Lucky me, as I have many questions about these books and noir and LA and even a couple about how Happy Doll might be connected to his beloved HBO series Bored to Death. And lucky you, you can come meet him as well and dive into this absolutely bonkers and brilliant series with me. So consider this your personal invitation to join this event, In-Person at Boswell on Monday, September 12, 6:30 pm central. Click here for more information and to register, which I hope you'll do, like, RIGHT NOW.

Editor's note: The Boswell Book Company LA Noir Canon continues, too! On Thursday, November 10, 6:30 pm, we host Robert Crais, author of Racing the Light, in conversation with Milwaukee author Nick Petrie. This is the latest installment in Crais's beloved Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series, set in, you guessed it, Los Angeles! Click here to register and find out more.

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