Noir hits home in Los Angeles, Orange County

Los Angeles Noir 2

The Classics

Edited by Denise Hamilton

Akashic: 300 pp., $15.95 paper

Orange County Noir

Edited by Gary Phillips

Akashic: 300 pp., $15.95 paper

“You can make a lot of mistakes in just one lifetime,” says violet-eyed Eve Cressy in Raymond Chandler’s “I’ll Be Waiting,” one of the stories in “Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics.” That sums up the spirit of noir, where if you make a mistake -- and you will -- you’ll find yourself skewered like a worm on a hook. Noir writers transformed the scars of the Great War, the crime of the Roaring ‘20s and the hopelessness of the Great Depression into a literature of despair.

The term “noir” applied to this fiction dates to 1945, when the French publisher Gallimard labeled its crime fiction -- including some translated American novels -- with the tag “Série Noire.” After the war, as American films again reached Europe, French critic Nino Frank recognized that many shared the same dark subject matter, and coined the term “film noir.”

Edited by Denise Hamilton, “Los Angeles Noir 2" is a follow-up to 2007’s “Los Angeles Noir.” The first book featured stories by contemporary authors. The second takes a step back. Its opening section resurrects tales by Chandler, Leigh Brackett, Chester Himes and the (unrelated) Cains -- Paul and James M. -- first published in long-gone pulp rags like Black Mask and New Detective.

Paul Cain’s “Murder in Blue” gives us a prime slice of what Chandler himself declared a “high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.” Brackett, one of the rare women of the era to gain recognition in both fiction and screenwriting (she co-wrote the screenplay to “The Big Sleep” with William Faulkner) sets her story in Surfside, a pre-gentrified pseudo-Venice. “Small tired houses crouched patiently under the wind,” she writes. “Somewhere a rusted screen door slammed with the protesting futility of a dying bird beating its wing.” James M. Cain writes about a hobo who can’t escape a burden of guilt, Himes offers a bloody vignette of 1930s South-Central and Chandler takes us to a Mid-Wilshire hotel, where the girl who’s made mistakes waits for a man who’s made one too many.

War’s legacy

As an editor, Hamilton takes a broad approach to the idea of classic, and many of the stories she includes take place after World War II. Ross Macdonald brings the war’s dark legacy home to a soulless Hollywood: “The tide had turned and was coming in, all the way from Hawaii and beyond, all the way from the shattered islands where bodies lay unburied in the burnt-out caves.” Naomi Hirahara and James Ellroy follow currents of interracial lust and retribution in the wake of the victory celebrations.

As “Los Angeles Noir 2" gets nearer to the present, it can sometimes grow a little strained. Joseph Hansen’s “Surf” gives us sex and murder by the beach, but his investigator never really gets his hands dirty. Margaret Millar’s yuppie nightmare is a gothic tale and William Campbell Gault’s Armenian American private eye is more warmhearted than hard-boiled.

Walter Mosley comes closer with a story about an ex-con trying to teach a boy what killing means, as does Kate Braverman’s account of a writer drifting back into addiction and hot-blooded excerpts from novels by Yxta Maya Murray and Jervey Tervalon set in East Los Angeles and Baldwin Hills.

Taking place only a few miles south, but a world away, “Orange County Noir,” edited by Gary Phillips, explores lost dreams, hidden motives, shattered lives and the clash of race and class behind the “orange curtain,” a region undergoing radical changes that often belie its wealthy, conservative image. Susan Straight, who won an Edgar Award for her story in the first “Los Angeles Noir,” here draws on a mysterious “phantom” who actually terrorized motorists in the 1970s, and summons up a modernizing landscape that hides ancient sins. “Down there,” Straight writes, “were bones, and skeletons, everywhere under the dirt. The babies. The guy. My mother’s bones. . . . The skulls rolling down the arroyo if it ever rained for forty days and forty nights.”

In tasty stories more ironic than noir, Nathan Walpow’s “A Good Day’s Work” combines retirement with political comeuppance, and Barbara Demarco-Barrett’s cougarish teacher sleeps her way to happiness. Robert Levinson and Rob Roberge provide deliciously nasty yarns of double-crosses and lives gone wrong. Other stories highlight the downside of upscale Laguna Beach; a lethal struggle for tenure at Chapman University; and a femme fatale and a hapless cabbie involved in a deadly game. In “Dark Matter,” former Times editor Martin J. Smith describes an agent trying to get rid of a faded rock legend; Patricia McFall imagines a nebbish looking for love in all the wrong places -- such as a women’s prison. It’s the OC as you’ve never seen it, and you’ll never think of it the same way.

Despite the French label, noir remains uniquely American, permeating the landscape from Cornell Woolrich’s nightmare New York to Jim Thompson’s Midwest malaise. Partly because so many writers have been wooed and wrecked by Hollywood’s siren song, these two collections reaffirm that the shadows cast by the Southland’s sun, and its gloomy ocean fog, have proved some of noir’s most fertile territory.

Russin is a screenwriter and professor at UC Riverside, where he teaches screenwriting and playwriting.