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Noir, for the postmodernist

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of two mystery novels.

How not to come off as a second-rate Raymond Chandler is a problem that afflicts every contemporary writer of hard-boiled fiction. Peter Moore Smith solves it by copping to it -- “Los Angeles,” his second novel (after “Raveling”), can be described as a postmodern mystery of the highest order and, at the same time, an unabashed homage to the noir genre.

The voice we hear in “Los Angeles” belongs to Angel, an aspiring but so-far-failed screenwriter. He wakes up early one morning with his “usual fusion of coffee and psychopharmaceuticals.” He contemplates the “blue minutes on the blue digital clock of the coffeemaker.” As he gazes out his apartment window, he is struck by the “unfamiliar six-in-the-morning brilliance” of the light. Smith concedes the cinematic quality of the scene: “In the quiet rustle of overhanging branches,” observes Angel, “I even thought I heard a director whisper, ‘Action!’ ”

At that moment the telephone rings, the voice of a mysterious woman named Angela is heard, a single word is spoken -- “Angel” -- and thus begins the tale of Angel’s desperate effort to rescue the woman who is rescuing him from a life of abject loneliness. When she goes missing, he must rescue her from something or someone far more dangerous. Or so we are led to believe.

Angel is an albino (“even my eyelashes are white, and what isn’t white is stark pink”), Angela is black with eyes “a shade of blue I didn’t know eyes came in”; they both live in the City of the Angels. She makes her living lap dancing at a “strip mall strip club”; he lives off his father’s largesse while working on a screenplay titled “Los Angeles.” After their first casual encounter in the apartment house where they both live, Angel finds himself obsessed -- and perhaps in love -- with Angela.

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“It was because her eyes kept changing colors,” explains Angel. “It was because her breasts were fake. It was because she came home at half past three in the morning but acted like it was three in the afternoon.... It was because she was a liar and so was I.”

As if to acknowledge his admiration for the masters of noir, Smith salts his story with little moments of tribute -- “Blade Runner,” for example, runs endlessly on Angel’s DVD player as a “kind of low-level light source.” And, just as the play of light is a characteristic conceit in film noir, light is the book’s leitmotif: “I have become obsessed over the years with the poetry of Los Angeles light,” says Angel, for whom light can literally be life-threatening. "[H]ow it ignites the fires that periodically burn entire sections of our city to their asphalt foundations.”

Smith has a sure grasp of the social and cultural geography of Southern California. Angel’s father is a philandering Hollywood producer, and his mother has exacted her revenge for her husband’s infidelities by taking up “a life of shopping and cosmetic self-destruction.” Smith carefully places Angel’s childhood home on North Rexford Drive, to make the point that he lived in the best part of Beverly Hills. And when the cops come looking for the missing Angela, Angel explains that she’s a dancer -- “But only until she finds something else.”

Angel’s desperate search to find Angela is the occasion for a series of flashbacks, first to their odd and oblique courtship and then to various other people, places and incidents in Angel’s strange and unsettled biography. “The inventory of my life,” muses Angel, “included a famous father, his young wife and adopted baby, a mother [with a] face ... rebuilt in plastic, a psychiatrist, a sociopathic lawyer, a missing girlfriend, and a rock star whom, somehow, no matter what, I had to find in Rio de Janeiro, even if it killed me.” It’s a tricky moment -- we are tempted to think that Smith is giving us clues to the mystery at the heart of his novel, but nothing quite prepares us for the shattering secrets revealed at the climax.

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Unlike so many thrillers, “Los Angeles” is not merely a screenplay treatment dressed up as a novel. Smith’s wordplay is so rich, inventive and provocative -- and the terror is so deeply entwined with the way the story is told -- that it’s hard to see how the novel could be turned into a movie without sacrificing the very qualities that make it at once a superb psychological thriller and a tender love story. In that way too, Smith reminds us of Raymond Chandler, whose novels invariably lost something subtle but vital when they were made into movies. *


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