In L.A. we sprawl in all directions. I was talking to a friend and co-worker who grew up here after his family fled Saigon in the 1970s. “Hey, Minh, I heard you bought a house. Congrats.”
“Yeah, it’s a fixer in Mid-City.”
I had to work my mental map. “Is that like Mid-Wilshire?”
“No, Mid-City is where the people who steal in Mid-Wilshire go home at night. It’s up and coming.”
Los Angeles will always be up and coming, because there is no end of people to steal from.
The perfect phrase, I think, to describe Los Angeles is one I’ll steal from Richard Rayner, who stole it from Orson Welles for the title of his excellent book: A Bright and Guilty Place. To write here you have to wrap your arms around that duality. The best fiction, and non-fiction, coming out of L.A. is drawn by the interplay of Light and Dark. We know, down in our bones and with every breath we breathe, we are smoldering in paradise.
Robert Frost riffed on this in a poem. “I met a Californian” who bragged of a place “so blessed in climate/none has ever died there/a natural death.”
Or as Carey McWilliams put it: “Los Angeles [has] the finest murders ever.”
Growing up in Indiana, I first knew of Los Angeles from my Uncle Dan, who migrated here when the Red Cars were still running. From his dispatches I got a picture of a place where people enjoyed their convertibles and swimming pools all year round. He also told of the Tarpits, holding the discovered remains of mastodons, saber-tooth tigers, and all manner of creatures great and small, lured and trapped by the oil muck seeping up from the depths. La brea: the original noir. Los Angeles has always been sucker bait.
La Brea excavations – 1913
In L.A. we have strata of history, layers of the past, as dense as those in ancient Rome. In Rome you can physically crawl down through the ancient stone passageways. Here, we have to use our imagination. Still, you can find yourself every bit as lost in the endless stretches of darkness.
Los Angeles lays claim to the highest number of recorded homicides in United States history, a record notched in 1851 at a mind-blowing 1,240 homicides per 100,000 population. Early risers in those days got to count the bodies left laying in the streets. This was the new Americanized Los Angeles, celebrating statehood, and the murder rate represents significant numbers of Mexicans, Chinese, and African-Americans, though the Anglos held their own as the largest single ethnic group among the corpses. We’ve tapered off since then.
Murder becomes legend in these parts. The Grim Sleeper. The Night Stalker. The Hillside Strangler. Celebrity murders and celebrity killers crisscross. Phil Spector, Ennis Cosby, Robert Blake. OJ. Manson. Johnny Stompanato.
Keep working back through the layers and you find faded crimes that fueled the classics of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, as they do still for the work of James Ellroy and Megan Abbott. The Black Dahlia, Rattlesnake Killer Robert James, “Tiger Woman” Clara Phillips, Winnie Ruth Judd. The tale of Dolly Oesterreich and her sex slave Otto “Bat Man” Sanhuber is as delightfully twisted as they come. The Winesvile Murders. And, oh lord, William Hickman’s abduction of little Marion Parker. The endless stretch of dark tales, like Los Angeles itself, seems impossible to encompass, impossible to capture and understand.
I’ve wandered deep into the layers, working at a novel that’s a variation on the 1930s crime story. Underneath it all I hear the voices of cops and con men, goddesses and gangsters, hedonists and puritans, a striving newspaper writer here and there, trying to make sense of it all.
Truth and fiction intermingle. I knew L.A. before I lived here. I absorbed it walking with Chandler up the steps behind Thelma Todd’s, and sweating in the close air of derelict boardwalk hotels. Ross MacDonald drove me through art colonies and colleges and up the driveways of ocean-view homes, pulling me into murder mysteries that reverberate in the past.
I live in Santa Monica, founded in the 1870s by a couple of guys looking to do something with the pile they made from the Gold Rush and Comstock Lode. They turned their sights toward the ranchos spread across the parched hills and tar swamps abutting cow town Los Angeles and started working the real estate. They joined an army of boosters who, decade after decade, touted Southern California as the Great White Spot for the solid citizens of the Midwest. It has never been that, of course. The original forty-four pobladores who settled Los Angeles were literally a mixed bag. Only a few were European Spanish, the rest classified as “Negro” or “Indian.”
Ever since those hardscrabble pioneers set roots down here, Los Angeles has grown in spurts and booms, the newcomers vying with the ones already here. Later generations made killings on water, oil, aviation, and the movies. And always, on real estate.
A hundred years ago, the era of the automobile allowed L.A. to sprawl across the landscape, absorbing bucolic open spaces, abandoning the palaces and citadels of the earlier boom times. Now as the landscape fills up, and the last wisps of open space have become jammed with pricey condos, pioneering Angelenos are returning to the Downtown relics of yesteryear. The pulse of the city reverses itself, and new fissures open up spitting forth new talents, new stories.
Los Angeles crime authors to follow today offer a wider, truer ethnic representation. They include the likes of Naomi Hirahara and Steph Cha. I’ve been delighted to discover the work of Rachel Howzell Hall and Désirée Zamorano, and was fortunate to know Craig Faustus Buck even before I knew what books he had in him. Denise Hamilton and Patricia Smiley give us a contemporary L.A. that is both hard-edged and personal. Gary Phillips is an unflagging proponent of L.A. authors, and has become something of an expert on forgotten and ignored African-American pulp and hard-boiled writers, even as he channels his inner twelve-year-old to blitz us with story after story of the kind he dug as a kid. And that leaves out countless Angelenos, like Christa Faust, Danny Gardner, or the prolific Eric Beetner, who set their stories in other places.
You know you’ve made it as a Los Angeles writer when you don’t have to live here any more. The most successful, your Michael Connellys, your Walter Moseleys, have a strong connection to this city, but they do their best work at a remove from the daily torments. Ellroy bounces around the country, expanding on his sagas, circling back to the homing ground now and then. He can afford the real estate, but he bailed on us again last year.
Several years ago I visited my brother for his last California Christmas before following his wife’s family back east. They had fled Tehran in the 1970s, settling in Los Angeles, where John’s father-in-law built up an international hotel development firm. He had just elected to uproot again and move the business to Washington.
Has the smart money moved on, leaving nothing but us suckers behind?
Still we come. The great Los Angeles basin continues to capture us as relentlessly as the Tarpits, where the bones of the sloths and the predators and the little birdies all lie gathered, conjoined for the ages.
I have faith in our greatest limitless resource: there is no end of people to steal from.
And we have the best murders.
Andrew Jetarski is the pen name of an author in Southern California who tries to stay out of trouble writing crime fiction. He also works as a motion picture editor in the entertainment industry. Having first explored the landscape of Southern California through the works of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald, he has continued his literary education reading stories by every contemporary Southern California crime writer he can manage to keep up with. He finally decided to take a crack at the genre himself and signed up for writing courses through UCLA Extension. Jetarski likes to ground his own work in the historical period of the Los Angeles of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Fellow writers and his loving wife have encouraged his literary endeavors. His first published short story, “Dance Man,” appeared in the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter’s 2013 anthology Last Exit to Murder, and his newest work is in their new anthology, Ladies Night.
To learn more about Last Exit to Murder, click on the cover below: