Epilogue to a writer's noir life

Times Staff Writer

Like a lot of noir novels, the career of Douglas Anne Munson, a hard-boiled Los Angeles writer who once seemed like one of the city's bright new lights, just gets murkier and more confusing the closer you look.

Munson wrote a trilogy of novels in the '90s, the first of which was the celebrated "Dogtown," set largely on the hard streets of Pico-Union.

Despite the name, she wasn't a man.

And despite her exotic-sounding pen name -- Mercedes Lambert -- she was a white Southerner who'd had a hard-knocks childhood.

Despite the author bio on the "Dogtown" book jacket, she didn't live in Montebello and didn't have two kids.

And despite her early success that included rave reviews and anchoring a sizable magazine article on L.A.'s then-nascent noir revival, she never quite arrived as a writer.

In fact, after some early success, she spiraled downward when the conclusion to her trilogy was rejected by her publisher. Health problems, severe depression, a stint of homelessness in Santa Monica, an escape to Prague and death by cancer in 2003 followed.

Now, the novel that served as the beginning of the end, "Ghosttown," is being published by Five Star, a small press in Waterville, Maine, next week, thanks to the efforts of literary friends and supporters.

Her advocates describe her as a potentially major figure, ahead of her time for her hard-bitten female protagonists and her portrayal of multicultural L.A. in love and squalor. Jonathan Kellerman calls the book "one of the most evocative L.A. crime novels ever written," and such writers as Hubert Selby Jr., Kate Braverman and Carolyn See championed her early work.

The first two books in the trilogy, long out of print, will be reissued next spring by Stark House, with an introduction by acclaimed Galway, Ireland, detective writer Ken Bruen.

It's hard not to read the tale of her life as that of a gifted artist, a literary martyr, destroyed by a heartless publishing establishment. But like a Raymond Chandler plot, it's not really that simple.

"She wrote mystery novels," said Michael Connelly, who never knew Munson but called her first novel, "El Niño," and the bruised idealism of its protagonist, a major influence on his work. "But she was probably the biggest mystery of all."

Munson, who came to L.A. after a difficult, itinerant childhood in the South, attended UCLA law school and worked as a court-appointed lawyer representing troubled families. By the early '80s, she got serious about writing.

"At that point a little bit of a legend preceded her," said Lucas Crown, an old friend who became her literary executor. "There was something very adventur- ous about her; she did things her own way."

Novelist John Rechy still remembers his first impression of when Munson came to his private writing workshop around that time. "When you saw her you thought, 'Here is a tough chick,' " recalls the "City of Night" author, who led Munson in his workshops for more than a decade. "But immediately the vulnerability was clear."

Though she was well liked in class, she was painfully soft-spoken and so fragile her hands would tremble.

"She changed her look very often," Rechy recalled. "She was a redhead, then very blond, very short, then full and dark. When she changed her name, her age changed."

In some pictures from this period, she looked like a busty '40s femme fatale. In others, she could've been a member of the Pretenders. As old friends of hers gathered at a recent party for "Ghosttown's" publication and shared recollections about her, Rechy was struck by "the contradictions of Douglas."

Crown recalls her as charismatic but "haunted" by disapproving, perhaps abusive parents and "by her own demons."

Because she continued working as a lawyer and kept to herself, most readers knew her only through her books, first as Munson, for 1990's legal thriller "El Niño" -- later, and confusingly, issued in paperback as "Hostile Witness" -- and then as Lambert, author of "Dogtown" and 1996's Koreatown-set "Soultown."

"Los Angeles is the greatest city in the world for crime fiction because of all the conflicts and potential for conflict," Munson told Los Angeles magazine around the publication of "Soultown."

"We start out on a precarious footing, trembling on the brink of natural disaster. Then we take hundreds of thousands of people who didn't get along in their country of origin, add to that an entrenched, angry and frightened group of people who don't want them here, throw in a Santa Ana, a few random insane murderers and pedophiles and then turn the whole thing over to studio executives and the LAPD."

Los Angeles writer Denise Hamilton remembers experiencing these books like a hit to the gut. The writing was "so raw and visceral, dark and filled with excess and violence," said Hamilton, whose most recent mystery novel is "Prisoner of Memory." "It had a lot of child abuse. I'd never read anything like it."

Hamilton read the Mercedes Lambert novels, only belatedly making the connection between them and "El Niño," and was struck that such hard-boiled writing, and such an unforgiving view of the city, was coming from the pen of a woman.

"These were not demure like Agatha Christie books -- she could swagger like the big boys. It's really only in the last 10 or 15 years that we've seen this renaissance of women crime and detective writers. When she published her first book, she was an anomaly. I don't remember any novel about L.A. by a woman's perspective that was so visceral and lurid."

Lambert's L.A., she said, is the collision of "Crash," "Day of the Locust" and the films of David Lynch.

Remaking the model

But her key inspiration was probably Raymond Chandler, and Munson was acutely conscious of dressing Chandler's work in drag: Each of the detective novels includes an epigraph from his work. ("Soultown," for instance, begins with a Chandler character in "Pickup on Noon Street" referring to a thoroughfare as "A bad street for a white girl.")

Her detective was an on-the-edge WASP lawyer named Whitney Logan, who worked with her Latina prostitute sidekick, Lupe Ramos.

The old Chandler-Hammett model has been remade over the last decade or so by writers of color and others telling stories "from the margins." Walter Mosley's series, which began with "Devil in a Blue Dress," became the first of a rich array of tales about black detectives who slip into scenes Chandler's Marlowe could never enter.

The contemporary mix is well captured even in white writers like John Shannon, whose books often take place in L.A.'s ethnic communities, as well as the recent Hamilton-edited "L.A. Noir," which sprawls, like the city, to encompass unexpected possibilities. Writers from South America to Japan borrow Chandler's clipped tone.

The old model, in other words, can be bent into all kinds of shapes. Lambert, who was fascinated by the city's ethnic range, was one of the pioneers of this "multicultural school."

But when she came along, literary noir was just arising -- thanks to Mosley, James Ellroy and a few others -- from a long slumber. "She was definitely an up-and-coming writer, she was on everyone's radar," said Connelly, who now lives in Florida. "But I think she was a recluse. I met and hung out with dozens of writers, but she wasn't one of them."

The 1996 Los Angeles article led with a provocative quote from "Dogtown" and praised the Lambert novels. "Lambert is part of a new generation of L.A. authors who are changing the face of mystery writing," the story read.

But for all their progressive gender and racial subtext, the prose and plotting of the first two Mercedes Lambert novels were gritty realism from first to last.

Not so the third book: Perhaps ironically, the thing that may have destroyed the novel's chances at a large audience and may have sparked her downfall was an attempt to bend genre convention in a way that it wouldn't bend.

"Ghosttown" begins in the Chandleresque spirit of the earlier books: Whitney, low on cash again, is dragged into a violent, hard-drinking Native American subculture by the murder of an Indian woman.

The story moves from Whitney's rundown Hollywood office to an assortment of dive bars, seedy hotels and arcane occult shops in pursuit of the killer. But the last chapter, in which the murderer is unveiled, turns magic realist -- or perhaps New Age.

At the very least, it's not a turn most readers will expect, and some may consider it cheating.

Even Crown, who fought for the publication of "Ghosttown," admitted its difficulty. "It may be that you just can't do that in a mystery novel," said Crown, now a Claremont-based website designer. "But she'd always been interested in belief systems," especially those of Native American civilizations.

The publishing world was less forgiving.

"Her third book, 'Ghosttown,' didn't work quite well," said Anne Borchardt, then Munson's agent. Borchardt asked Munson to change the ending and some important details.

But even after Munson -- who in '96 had quit her job and abruptly moved to San Francisco and then Bainbridge Island, Wash. -- made revisions, the book was turned down by Viking, the publisher of her previous books. This rejection resonated more than most.

"When you have a series, you can't take one of the books to a new publisher," Borchardt said. Potential publishers, she said, wonder why a book in a series needs a new home. Viking told her that there was too much time in between volumes in the series and that the previous books hadn't sold especially well. The book, then, was stranded.

Munson took it hard. Her health deteriorated, she went broke and was hit with recurrent migraines and lost track of almost all of her friends.

Despite some complaints about the novel's resolution, Crown chose to publish the original version that Munson submitted to her agent. It took years, and Five Star, which plans a small print run, paid him a tiny $1,000 advance.

"I saw it as a bit of unfinished business," said Crown, who's unconvinced by Borchardt's explanation and thinks the agent and publisher failed their writer. "It really derailed her. She stopped writing, it all went off track when this didn't get published."

On March 1, 2001, Crown received a letter from Munson, who was in the Czech Republic, asking for airfare back to the States so she could stay with some old friends who'd moved to Connecticut. The cancer she thought she'd beaten two decades before was back.

She died in December 2003. Crown scattered her ashes in the Pacific.

Persistence versus luck

To this day, Borchardt thinks that Munson could have continued to publish if she'd remained persistent.

"I think if she had written another book we could have sold it," she said. "She was very depressed; she hadn't had a book rejected before. Her self almost gave up. I definitely would have gone on trying."

Borchardt mentions Charles Johnson, who was rejected by 20 publishers before his career was saved by the hit historical novel "Middle Passage" and the $250 advance her firm got for Elie Wiesel's "Night," now a perennial worldwide bestseller.

"My theory is that good books get published," she said. "We don't give up until we've tried everything."

Some of Munson's advocates disagree with this optimistic view. Her twisting tale seems to have instilled a kind of literary fatalism in her supporters.

"Talent does not win the day," Connelly said. "You need a lot of luck. Douglas did not have much luck."

Rechy thinks the publishing industry tells itself sweet nothings to justify itself.

"For every one who manages to pull through," he said of writers, "there will be dozens of equal worth. But they're thrown into this machinery."

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scott.timberg@latimes.com

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