L.A. noir anthology is not just the usual suspects
Its stories are set in present times, with unlikely locations and few private eyes.
L.A. people dont want a retread of Double Indemnity,. says anthology editor Denise Hamilton. They want to be amazed and told something they dont know. (Francine Orr / LAT)
"Los Angeles Noir" is the 13th installment of the series by the maverick Brooklyn-based indie Akashic Books. It's also the first to be set in the city that effectively invented the genre.
As she put the volume together, editor Denise Hamilton, a mystery writer herself, was conscious — maybe all too conscious — of the city's centrality to the tradition, and the iconic work of noir forebears Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. Her goal was to show L.A. noir moving into the 21st century.
"It's such a beloved, classic genre," Hamilton, 47, said over lunch near her home in the San Fernando Valley. But noir, she said, "can become a sterile, closed-room, museum thing, because it's been done so well. I wanted to stay away from the stereotypes, so it could stay interesting and relevant to our era, as well as bring in the best of those classic noir tropes. How can you put a new spin on it, a new twist?"
For her, this meant setting the stories in the present day and emphasizing overlooked and unlikely locations — the Los Angeles River, Mar Vista, Long Beach's leafy Belmont Shore — while still emphasizing classic themes like obsession, deception and moral darkness. Her view of how the tradition can be expanded took shape a decade ago, she said, when she started reading Walter Mosley's detective novels set in historic black L.A.
Most of the series volumes, said press founder and publisher Johnny Temple, are organized by neighborhood. "And that model forces the books to explore hidden quarters of cities," keeping the stories spread around in terms of geography, class and ethnicity.
The series began when "Brooklyn Noir," edited by borough native Tim McLoughlin, became a critical and popular success.
For Hamilton, a longtime L.A. journalist and Times reporter whose latest book is the Eve Diamond mystery "Prisoner of Memory," this push to challenge her readers also meant going beyond the usual suspects and structures, something that may rankle noir purists.
Only a few of the stories feature a detective or private eye. There's Michael Connelly, with a story called "Mulholland Dive," but no Robert Crais or James Ellroy or John Shannon. Instead there's wise-guy "Alternadad" Neal Pollack — though he's the editor of Akashic's "Chicago Noir," he's a writer not usually associated with the genre — and "White Oleander" author Janet Fitch, typically considered a "literary" novelist.
"For me, 'White Oleander' is a really noir novel," Hamilton said of Fitch's best-known work. "As is her new one, 'Paint It Black.'" (Hamilton also considers Nathanael West a noir forebear, since "The Day of the Locust" is full of "desperation, illusion versus reality and betrayal.")
"I think noir has infiltrated our culture and our consciousness so much," she said, that it no longer feels like "slumming" to literary types.
Despite some general guidelines, Temple said, each book has its own character, with both the editor and the city in question shaping the individual volumes enormously.
" 'Dublin Noir' has a lot of punchy, clever, quick tales featuring tightly crafted stories," he said of the volume edited by Irish writer Ken Bruen. "In 'Brooklyn Noir' you'll find almost no recognizable crime names but mostly literary writers writing crime fiction and doing it beautifully."
Changes in the city
For her part, Hamilton wanted stories that show how the city has changed in the seven decades since writers like Chandler, and filmmakers like Howard Hawks and John Huston, were carving out the noir style with a mix of Dashiell Hammett and German Expressionism.
"How can we incorporate those changes into a classic noir story that feels very immediate and millennial and Pacific Rim and sprawling?"
Here's one way: "Number 19" is a story set mostly in a Korean day spa, by Naomi Hirahara, who writes mystery novels starring a Japanese American gardener and Hiroshima survivor.
Said Hamilton: "She's taking the classic story of obsession, like out of Patricia Highsmith, and putting it in a part of L.A. — Koreatown — that did not exist in the 1940s. That was the kind of story I was looking for, a story that could open a window into what L.A. was like today ... I wanted to excavate parts of L.A. I didn't know." Some are not just places but ethnic enclaves, "parallel realities ... an L.A. a lot of people don't see."
Pollock's story is about a bottom-feeder screenwriter with a not terribly healthy gambling habit that takes him to a casino in the City of Commerce. A tale set among Russian immigrants in the Fairfax district, by Lienna Silver, is the kind of piece that's not obviously a work of noir. Connelly's story is a classic police procedural that opens with "Burning flares and flashing red and blue lights" on Mulholland Drive after a fatal accident.
Other stories are written by L.A. Times scribes Héctor Tobar (on East Hollywood) and Patt Morrison (on Beverly Hills), mystery writer Gary Phillips on "Mid-City" and historical novelist Susan Straight on downtown.
"L.A. people are very sophisticated, and, frankly, I don't think they wanted a retread of 'Double Indemnity,' " Hamilton said. "They want to be amazed and impressed and told something they don't know."
In a recent New Yorker article, critic Clive James noted that while the crime novel has shifted over time, "there are only so many story lines and patterns of conflict. The only workable solution," James writes, "has been to shift the reader's involvement from the center to the periphery: to the location."
Still, why did the city in which Cain's "Double Indemnity" and Chandler's "The Big Sleep" were created and set take so long to show up on Akashic's list, trailing even such literary also-rans as the District of Columbia and Minnesota's Twin Cities?
Temple said it was because he was looking for the right editor, someone who knew the city and its writers well. "The books have to ring authentically to people in that city." He plans to bring out volumes set in Havana, Queens and Lagos, the latter edited by Nigerian-born L.A. writer Chris Abani.
It's hard to imagine another literary form that seems at home in so many places.
"It's archetypal literature," said Hamilton. "And it's about archetypal human dramas: Desperation, betrayal, paranoia. It's eternal, and continues from decade to decade."
A series of evenings with "L.A. Noir" authors kicks off at 7 tonight at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, (310) 476-6263.