La-La Land's a land of losers. . . . We're all just a bunch of dreamers with a nickel in our shoe. Why do we come out here chasing dreams that are so hard to catch? It takes your heart, your guts and your liver just to find the lock, and then 999 times out of a grand you can't find the key.
--The hero Whistler, in Robert Campbell's "Alice in La-La Land."
"La-La Land" was what Robert Wright Campbell called Los Angeles. By the time he finished his "La-La Land Quartet" of novels about the flawed private detective known simply as Whistler, Campbell wasn't the only one using that dreamy-seamy nickname for the City of Angels. The phrase became part of the American lexicon.
Like Whistler, Campbell came "out here" chasing show business dreams. As for heart, guts and liver, the author, not unlike his fictional detective, acquired and later kicked a four-pack-a-day smoking habit and a drinking problem. And they both found the Hollywood-and-Vine lock, if not the key.
Whistler and the "La-La Land" tag he made famous will live on in mystery-genre literature.
Robert Wright Campbell, writer of 27 novels, 14 screenplays, scripts for 10 television series and four stage plays, died Sept. 21 at Hospice House of Monterey. He was 73 and had lived in Carmel for the past 25 years.
Born in Newark, N.J., Campbell studied painting at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. But when his actor brother landed a role in "Battle Cry," Campbell, then in the Army, asked how much a guy could make writing a thing like that.
Maybe $50,000, estimated William Campbell.
The artist-turned-screenwriter came to Hollywood. It was 1952. If he failed, he told himself, he'd go back East and get a commercial art job with a New York advertising agency. He didn't fail.
Campbell wrote a screenplay for "Five Guns West," released in 1955, and four more of his screenplays became movies in 1957, including "The Man With a Thousand Faces," which was nominated for an Academy Award.
Among his other films were "Machine Gun Kelly," "The Masque of the Red Death" and "Captain Nemo and the Underwater City." He also wrote scripts for such television series as "Maverick" and "Marcus Welby, M.D."
Although Campbell later belittled his 23-year Hollywood career as "not that illustrious," he conceded he made a lot of money at it. He also become disillusioned.
"The town started getting to me," he said in 1988. "It's a bad town."
On a visit to Carmel in 1975, Campbell pondered a sunset and realized: "I had literally been starved for visual beauty."
Within three days, he decided to move, believing "you can't write screenplays from there." He tried two and sold neither.
So he turned to novels. First came "The Spy Who Sat and Waited" in 1975, about a German intelligence agent in England's Orkney Islands between the world wars. The book was nominated for a National Book Award.
Other character-driven mainstream novels followed, under the names R. Wright Campbell, F.G. Clinton and, eventually, Robert Campbell.
But the books were not selling. At 57 and broke, Campbell was pondering a Hobson's choice between returning to Hollywood to write TV scripts and getting a job as a hotel night clerk. Novelist friend Bob Irvine suggested that he try writing mystery novels.
Campbell was dubious about his ability to manage a clue-laced plot. Readers were not. His first effort was "The Junkyard Dog" in 1986, which won the Edgar Allen Poe award of the Mystery Writers of America.
Heeding the old saw that writers should "write what they know," Campbell looked to his youth, setting the book in Chicago, the last place to practice the machine politics he grew up with in Newark. Modeling the hero on his civil servant father, he concocted Jimmy Flannery, a Chicago sewer inspector, precinct captain and raconteur.
Campbell followed Flannery with a darker detective, Whistler, who had a first name but declined to use it. That shorter series was fueled not by nostalgia for a former habitat, but rage.
The rage was not aimed at Los Angeles itself, but at some of the slimy elements it can gestate--such as child pornography and prostitution, which were the subjects of the 1986 "In La-La Land We Trust."
"Alice in La-La Land" in 1987, which author and Times reviewer Carolyn See described as "one long, sustained, crazy tirade about the rotted excesses of our fair city," deals with a fictional late-night talk show host who gets his jollies from beating prostitutes to death.
"Sweet La-La Land" in 1990 focuses on runaway children and prostitution intertwined with murder. The third book in the quartet, it prompted a San Diego Union-Tribune reviewer to twit Los Angeles: "The city, in fact, is the real protagonist. This novel is violent and shocking, somewhat improbably yet endlessly fascinating. Something like L.A. itself."
The last in the series, "The Wizard of La-La Land" in 1995, deals with Satanists and child abuse.
In addition to the Flannery and Whistler series, Campbell launched a third mystery series in 1988 with "Plugged Nickel," featuring Omaha-based railroad detective Jake Hatch.
Interspersed among the three series, which he found lucrative but exhausting, Campbell wrote non-genre crime novels such as "Juice" and "Boneyards."
The accidental mystery novelist came to view the gritty manuscripts as the best art form for making "socially significant" points in the manner of Charles Dickens.
"The most felicitous thing about making a living writing," Campbell told an interviewer in 1988, "is to make some contribution of excellence somewhere along the line or to sound the alarm."
Campbell did both. His La-La Land Quartet unquestionably spotlighted the problems of Los Angeles' youth flesh markets, and the Flannery series examined murder with subplots of machine politics.
His carefully crafted writing won not only awards, but also warm praise from a variety of reviewers. They cited his "dizzyingly devilishly wonderful sentences" and "ball-peen prose."
The Washington Post called the Whistler series "some of the most resonant tough-guy fiction around."
For all his success, the lifelong bachelor, who often spent even Sundays at his computer, longed futilely to write a certain novel. Its would-have-been title: "The Year of Doing Nothing."