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Writes of Passage : Alex Abella Heard the Voice of His Muse--and He Took Dictation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stuck at home with the flu, Alex Abella heard a voice in his head. But he didn’t freak out and assume he was really sick.

No, Abella knew opportunity was calling.

So he reached for a legal pad and took dictation.

Three years later, the 40-year-old Cuban-American finished “The Killing of the Saints,” a first novel set in Los Angeles that is getting the kind of reception most writers would go crazy for.

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“I was homesick, and all of a sudden I started hearing this voice, which is the voice you hear right at the beginning (of the novel),” he says. “My job then was to try to follow it and see where it was going to lead me. It was unsettling in a way, being a conduit for something like that and just hearing the words.”

Early reviews of the novel have been effusive, comparing the new kid to Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a literary mixture that defies comparison--except maybe to a banana, caviar and mustard sandwich. Abella also has written a script based on the book for a Hollywood studio. And the foreign rights are selling nicely, thank you.

Not a bad start for a refugee from television news who spent the last seven years as a Spanish-language interpreter for Los Angeles Superior Court.

The novel’s early raves are a sweet reward for years of plugging away at both the novel and film scripts without much success.

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In fact, Abella moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco because he wanted to write for the movies.

But it was not to be.

“I had an agent at the time,” Abella explains. “I had a script out and he was very hopeful. So I came down (to Los Angeles) but at that point--this sounds like a bad movie--my agent died. So the script went nowhere.”

Ultimately, though, the interpreter’s job turned out to be perfect for the novel Abella would write.

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Although it is complex and sweeping, “The Killing of the Saints” pivots around Los Angeles County’s creaking justice system.

Abella offers an insider’s perspective on the legal structure and its imperfections, from the eccentricities of judges to the baloney sandwich lunches served to defendants.

It is not a flattering picture. Every character is saddled with frailties and flaws. Corruption is commonplace. Cynicism is rampant. Conspiracy, greed and treachery are the stuff of life.

The novel mirrors Abella’s perceptions about the courts, which he calls “the criminal injustice system.” With a laugh, he adds: “I wonder if I will be able to ever work with (the courts) again” once the book has become widely available.

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But the scope of “The Killing of the Saints” is broader than a courtroom and wider than the space between a lawyer’s ears. Abella says his ambition was to portray contemporary Los Angeles, a city he loves, warts and all.

“To me L.A. is the first 21st-Century city,” he says. “L.A. to me is a palimpsest (parchment), so to speak, of different layers, one on top of the other. It’s also extremely Hispanic, which is something you don’t realize until you live here and you realize the kitchen help, people all around (are Latino), and many times their presence is not even acknowledged; it’s just taken for granted. It’s also an area of different pockets, of different worlds within themselves that are connected by the freeways--universes that touch but don’t actually co-mingle.”

Abella’s device for hopping around the city and bridging the universes is that indispensable Angeleno, the private investigator, in this case a Cuban-American attorney with a questionable past. Charlie Morell’s clients are losers, almost always on their way to a long stay in the slammer, or worse.

Morell also is the novel’s narrator. Through his eyes Abella portrays a city of legal, criminal and ethnic and racial subcultures that probably are invisible to the average air-conditioned Southern California commuter.

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A graduate of Columbia University whose family fled Cuba after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Abella also found the novel allowed him to portray Cuban “consciousness” for a wide audience.

Through this theme Abella explores family life, especially father-son relationships, as well as the problems of assimilation, Cuban criminals and Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion that mingles Roman Catholicism and African customs.

In fact, Santeria provides both the motive for the crime at the center of the novel and the legal defense employed by the criminal Ramon, who acts as his own attorney and turns his trial into chaos.

Without giving away all of the plot, “The Killing of the Saints” opens with the commission of a spectacular crime.

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Stoked on coke and emboldened by Santeria rituals, Ramon and an accomplice saunter into a jewelry store in downtown Los Angeles. Pulling guns from under their coats, Ramon shoots the store’s armed guard in the knees. The robbers break the glass display cases and stuff golden trinkets into their pockets.

The store is soon surrounded by police, and a slaughter follows in which six people die, including a child killed by a ricochet from a cop’s sniper rifle.

Snared in a police cordon, the holdup men surrender. Neither one has been wounded. They demand to speak to attorneys.

Everyone agrees the two Cuban killers are riding greased skids straight to the gas chamber.

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Or so it seems.

Suffice it to say that Ramon concocts an outrageous defense based on his religion and that the verdict makes headlines.

As for himself, Abella says that Santeria proved to be a terrific dramatic theme that required him to become a student of the religion’s practices.

“I’ve been to a few rites and I know a few people,” he says. “I can’t say that I’m a believer--I’m not. But I’m extremely interested in it. . . . There is something there.”

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If nothing else, Santeria is a sort of cultural glue, Abella maintains.

“It’s the obverse of evangelical Christianity,” he says. “It’s a religion that provides a sense of cohesion and a sense of pride to people from a particular ethnic background.”

In a larger sense, Abella sees the Santeria element of the novel as simply an exotic expression of age-old human concerns.

“I think it’s inevitable that if you start thinking about the human condition, you start thinking about God,” he says.

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