Monday, April 17, 2023

Easy Rawlins by Walter Mosley

Just as I was diving into James Ellroy's twisted version of Los Angeles in the post-war era, along came Walter Mosley's first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). I grabbed it probably after hearing it reviewed on NPR. It was presented as a hardboiled LA crime story, but told from the perspective of someone who was never the protagonist in any of the classic stories; a black man. It's a good book and a terrific debut novel. It led me to read six more Easy Rawlins books as they came out as well as the first Socrates Fortlow book, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1997). The latter is an absolutely fantastic book, disappointingly filmed by Michael Apted and starring Laurence Fishburne. 

Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins is a WWII veteran and aircraft factory worker when he falls into investigating the location of a white woman who frequents black bars. Worried about paying his mortgage after losing his job, Rawlins agrees. Along with the expected twists and dangers from a hardboiled mystery, Mosley delivers plenty about race and class in post-war America. It's not a perfect book - there's a bit too much deus ex machina via a certain character - but it's a damn good one. The movie, starring Denzel Washington as Easy and Don Cheadle as Mouse (which is the first time I noticed him and he blew away everyone else on the screen and in the theater), is solid, too. 

The first five books - Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death (1991), White Butterfly (1992), Black Betty (1994), and A Little Yellow Dog (1996) - are an absolutely terrific addition to the hardboiled canon. The speed of those five books' appearance is reflected in the headiness and urgency in Mosely's writing. Part of their goal is to open wide the genre and expand its purview beyond the same old white heroes. Nonetheless, they remain true to the tropes and forms. In the foreword to the 30th-anniversary edition of Devil, Mosely wrote:

Easy is not afraid of death. He cannot but follow his understanding of what is right and wrong. And he knows that the LAPD, the mayor and governor, the congress and president are not, in so many ways, reflective of his values. Every case he takes on is defined by his personal understanding of honesty and justice. In this way Easy is an inheritor of the mantle of the hardboiled private detective genre that started with Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op. He must make up his own mind as to what is legal and not legal, fair and balanced, in a world where corporate interests eclipse the individual nine times out of ten.
I read seven of the series before drifting away after Bad Boy Brawly Brown (2002) as the stories became a little too familiar (I was also at the beginning of a push to read more new fantasy, so picking up some doorstoppers meant less time for crime stories).  A  major problem with any long series, though, is it's easy for the author to fall into a rut. It's got to be brutal to keep up the quality with a single set of characters who keep falling into extraordinary circumstances again, and again. I gave up on Joe Lansdale's Hap & Leonard series after Vanilla Ride (2009) and I'm not sure I'll go back to Michael Connelly's Bosch books anytime soon. The only similar things I've stuck it out with are James Lee Burke's Robicheaux books and John Connolly's Charlie Parker series, both largely because they're brilliant prose writers.

It's been ages since I reread Devil in a Blue Dress and it's definitely time for a revisit. The thing is, I stopped with book seven and now there are fourteen. If I start, I'm curious how much, if any, further, I'll get this time. The thing about ditching on a series is you never know what you're missing out on.  For all I know, the best Easy Rawlins book is one I never got to.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Film Noir Los Angeles


A Neighborhood Far Afield (previously post on my other blog in 2009)

In the heart of downtown Los Angeles is the neighborhood of Bunker Hill. Once it was a steep hill covered with Victorian mansions and shops and reached by seemingly impossibly steep trains tracks.

Over time their wealthy owners moved to the suburbs in places like Pasadena and the mansions became apartments and flophouses. The whole area became a giant filming location for film noir movies.

In 1955 the city decided the neighborhood as is stood impeded the city's development. They declared it blighted (which of course, once such a determination was made, only led to area becoming truly blighted), eliminated the 150 foot height limit on new buildings, and leveled the district. Literally. 

About a hundred feet were shaved off the hill, tearing down most of the old buildings and making way for the steel and glass skyscrapers that dominate the downtown today.

I don't know anything about LA and I can't say much about the rightness or wrongness of what was done six decades ago (though I will say I find the look of downtown LA ugly as sin). But I can provide a link to an amazing site (On Bunker Hill) put together by local LA historians and aficionados in order to document the old, and long lost, Bunker Hill. 

(2023) Additionally, there's a movie about American Indians who moved to the are in the late fifties. Most of actors were non-professionals. The movie's plot was derived from documentary interviews. Shot in the Bunker Hill neighborhood, it's got some amazing footage of a neighborhood long gone.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

the Lloyd Hopkins Covers

My first experience with James Ellroy was completely unknowingly when I watched the movie Cop (1988) with James Woods. It wasn't until I started going through Ellroy's catalogue a few years later did I realize his early book, Blood on the Moon (1984) was the film's basis. 

It's been ages since I've seen the movie, but my memory is it's alright. It's pretty brutal and maintains a modicum of the book's weirdness and creepiness. Still, against the book, it's a pale shadow. 

The Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy - Blood on the Moon, Because the Night (1984), and Suicide Hill (1985) - is Ellroy's first series. It's been ages since I've read these, but I remember liking them a lot. Hopkins is too brilliant and the plot's insane, but these are short and fast, and an intimation of greater things to come.

Monday, April 3, 2023

COUGAR BLOOD BOIL! - James Ellroy's First L.A. Quartet

Ellroy's mugshot
My one encounter with James Ellroy came in the mid-nineties (probably 1994) at New York Is Book Country. He was hawking his books and asked me to buy the latest, Hollywood Nocturnes. I told him I already had it and everything else as well. He seemed pleased. Then he offered to sign the balloon my friend was carrying. She, of course, let him. With a flourish, he wrote: Cougar Blood Boil! No one could have asked for anything better.

I found James Ellroy during grad school (1989-1991) when I was in the middle of an obsession with true crime. Right after I had seen something about the murder of Liz Short, aka the Black Dahlia, I remembered seeing a book in the mystery section of the mall bookstore called The Black Dahlia (1987). With no idea of the author's name, I had to go through the shelves, book by book. And then I found it, the author someone I'd never heard of before: James Ellroy.

The first sentence just hinted at the dark obsession that the novel would quickly emerge as the core of one of the most intensely haunting and brutal books I had ever read.

I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been - a tag that might equally apply to me.

Narrated by LAPD detective Bucky Bleichert, The Black Dahlia is the story of his friendship with another cop, Lee Blanchard, and his girlfriend, Kay Lake, and the real-life murder in 1947 of Elizabeth Short. Solving Short's murder displaces everything in Bleichert's life, dragging him deeper and deeper into circles of corruption and depravity that would make Caligula blush.

Ellroy took the 1940s Los Angeles of the great film noirs and Raymond Chandler and turned it into a psychotic fantasy hopped up on violence, booze, sex, and racism. Chandler famously wrote : 

down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

This is not the case for Beichert or any of the protagonists in Ellroy's books. They are brutal, liars, drunks, and abusers. Still, some of them still have something buried away that still lets them grasp for justice or deliver vengeance in its absence.

The Black Dahlia changed my attitude toward crime fiction. While I had grown up watching every mystery show imaginable (from the brilliant Rockford Files down to the ridiculous Quincy and anything in between), but I had never developed a taste for crime and mystery novels. This book changed all that. 

Once I had plowed through all of Ellroy's available catalogue I turned to the two best-known hardboiled writers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I still have to read some of their novels, but I quickly burned through all their short stories. Hammett's Continental Op stories and Chandler's Marlowe stories are brilliant. The Black Lizard editions of their books led me to the Black Lizard editions of Chester Himes' series of novels about two black NYPD detectives; Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Those books, all read over 1990 and 1991, set me on the path of reading crime fiction for which I'll be forever grateful.

The Black Dahlia was followed by three more books; The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992). Together, they were called the L.A. Quartet. Each weaves together fictional and historical figures and sets them against the great economic engines of L.A., first home building, then Hollywood, and finally Disney. Ellroy's L.A. is a bottomless-gulletted monster that devours innocence and pukes up sin and corruption. The latter is mere political shenanigans, but the Biblical, soul-destroying stuff. It's not for the timid - it's epically harrowing - but the reward is one of the greatest undertakings in crime writing. (If you like the movie L.A. Confidential - which I do - just know that it eliminated an entire subplot involving a child killer who happens to be the son of a Walt Disney stand-in)

Ellroy's writing is akin to Chandler's but hopped up on speed and booze. As the quartet proceeded, the writing became increasingly elaborate and the storytelling complex and complicated. With White Jazz, he flipped the table. Supposedly in response to his editor's request to trim the book's length, instead of excising sub-plots, he eliminated any words he could. White Jazz is the memoir of a corrupt cop on speed and it reads that way:

Robbery, sweet duty: jack up heist guys and boost their shit.

Work the Commie: phone calls.

Fred Turentine, bug man-yes for five hundred. Pete Bondurant-yes for a grand-and he'd pay the photo guy. Pete, Hush-Hush cozy-more heat on the smear.

 The Women's Jail watch boss ower me; a La Verne Benson update cashed her out. La Verne-prostituion beef number three-no bail, no trial date. La Verne to the phone-suppose we lose your rap sheet-yes! yes! Yes!

Antsy-my standard postmurder shakes. Antsy to itchy-drive.

After not having read anything by Ellroy all the way through in a long time, I'm thinking it might be time for a revisit. At some point, I overdosed. I was exhausted after I finished American Tabloid (1995), the first of the Underworld USA trilogy. I bought the second book, The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and never read it. I never bothered buying the final one, Blood's a Rover (2009), and eventually sold the first two. He'd abandoned the crazed experiment of White Jazz and crafted something too-similar to the Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential but amped up a million white-hot degrees. It just wasn't worth it. 

That was over twenty years ago, so it might be time to revisit Ellroy. I never reneged on my love for the L.A. Quartet. When they came out, I bought copies of Perfidia and This Storm, but I before I go at them, I really think I need to go back to where it all started in The Black Dahlia.