A Bright and Guilty Place
Murder, Corruption, and
L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age
Doubleday: 270 pp., $25
Everything has its counterpart. For every piece of matter there is a like piece of antimatter, for every movie star there is or will be a like TV star. For every Steve McQueen a Lee Majors, for every Marlon Brando an Arthur Fonzarelli. (These facts have been established.)
In his brilliant new book, “A Bright and Guilty Place,” Richard Rayner has given us, finally and definitively, the nonfiction equivalent of the Raymond Chandler classics that fell like hammer blows in the middle of last century: “Farewell, My Lovely,” “The Long Goodbye,” “The Big Sleep.” Chandler turned fact, the criminal underworld of Depression-era Los Angeles, into fiction, and now Rayner, by a strange Didion-like alchemy, has turned fiction back into fact. Not to say he has dug up the story behind the story, as a reporter might profile the real white whale, but that he has run the world of Chandler through the machine a second time, the result being utterly truthful, fantastic and new.
At the center of the book stand two characters, the good soul and the killer, Abel and Cain, around whom the story spins as cotton candy spins its wispy strands around a paper handle: Leslie White, “sickly, smart, dedicated, eager to be good,” who moved to Los Angeles in 1928 and took a job as an investigator at the district attorney’s office, where his optimism was soon ground down (he would become a writer of pulp fiction); and Los Angeles native Dave Clark, who traced his lineage to explorer William Clark. You could not invent a more dashing character than Clark -- a fighter pilot, champion golfer and double-fisted drinker who became the kind of celebrity prosecutor whose thoughts inevitably turn to politics.
He had a “pencil moustache and a gorgeous quality about him,” writes Rayner. “Reporters likened him to John Barrymore, to John Gilbert, and later to Clark Gable.” But by the end of the story, Clark, the golden boy, having fallen in with a bad crowd, finds himself prosecuted by his own office, on trial for double murder, the shooting deaths of local crime boss Charlie Crawford and newspaperman Herbert Spencer.
(Spencer dies like a kid dies in a movie shot on Super 8: “Mortally wounded, [he] staggered out of the office . . . stopped to steady himself against the signboard advertising a photographer’s studio; then he collapsed, spilling his blood, bright red against the sidewalk on Sunset Boulevard.”)
The background of this murder is the book’s real subject, Los Angeles in its defining moment, the late 1920s and early 1930s, which, according to Rayner, who writes an online column for The Times’ books section, is when the city’s “personality was fixed.” Here, characters, crimes, scandals and legends spill from the pages in bewildering and fascinating profusion. Take Clara Bow, silent star, “It” girl, washed up at 25, blackmailed by an assistant who had taken possession of letters of a very personal nature, chronicling nymphomania -- these came to light in a case tried by Clark. According to one highly fact-challenged press report, Bow “seduced her chauffeur, her cousin and a pet koala bear.”
Or take the story of E.L. Doheny, known to many as a road in Beverly Hills, but in fact one of the mythical founders of Los Angeles, an old American type who began his adventures in Arizona in the 1880s, then carried the spirit of the Wild West into the new century. He was one of the most powerful oilmen in the world, mixed up in the Teapot Dome Scandal that crippled the presidency of Warren G. Harding. Doheny was a model for the tycoon portrayed in the Upton Sinclair novel “Oil!” The mansion, Greystone, that Doheny built for his son, on 12 acres in Beverly Hills, still stands and is often used as a location for Hollywood movies, including “The Big Lebowski” and “There Will Be Blood” (that was the house’s bowling alley), itself based on Sinclair’s book. That movie, in other words, is Daniel Day Lewis playing a character based on the guy who built the house: real to fake to real. If you follow that, you understand L.A.
Greystone was the scene of a great unsolved murder -- it appears and reappears in Chandler -- in the course of which Doheny’s son either killed or was killed by his valet, who then killed himself, or was killed. The crime scene was investigated by Leslie White, who brought evidence of tampering to his boss at the D.A.'s office, where it was covered up. “And what were the family and the family doctor doing during the four hours they didn’t call the cops,” Philip Marlowe wonders in “The High Window.” “Fixing it so there would be only a superficial investigation.”
“A Bright and Guilty Place” is stuffed with incidents and alibis. As in the novels of Chandler, every two-bit walk-on gets his description and back story, the result being a landscape crowded horizon to horizon, as rushed and overpopulated as a marketplace. It is like one of those paintings by the photo-realists in which every face, even those deep in the background, is drawn in exaggerated detail. Like a baseball game in high def. Nothing is allowed to blur into distance. At times, this brings on a kind of vertigo, the heat of overstimulation, like the not unpleasant aura seen before the migraine.
All of this is held together by Rayner -- his sensibility, which is wised-up tough, and his style, which is lyrical and sharp, drifting, now and then, into the funkier bass-driven groove of Chandler. “The trial’s early days were pretty routine for L.A. at this time,” Rayner writes of another case, “which is to say that Leontine Johnson looked a knockout on the stand, then wept, then fainted and had to take a day off. . . . “
As you read on, though, you realize he is up to something grander than merely telling a story. He is showing us Chandler’s memory bank, what he lived through, the experiences and sensations that made him the Homer of his moment. Born in Chicago, schooled in England, Chandler, who worked for years in the oil business, learned the score in Los Angeles. In other words, the book is about the birth of noir -- it’s like a diorama in which you see the underworld and graft that created the hard-bitten attitude as naturally as a cold wind creates fog.
"[N]oir is more than just a slice of cinema history,” writes Rayner. "[I]t’s a counter-tradition, the dark lens through which the booster myths came to be viewed, a disillusion that shadows even the best of times, an alienation that assails the senses like the harsh glitter of mica in the sidewalk on a pitiless Santa Ana day.”
In the end, as a kind of grace note, Rayner, who opened tight on the streets of old L.A., then pulled back to show Chandler sketching those streets, pulls back still further, revealing himself, born and raised in England, a kid who fell on the works of Chandler in a gloomy fever, came west looking for the world in those books and wound up creating his own world instead.
In this way, Rayner puts his name alongside the names of Doheny, Bow, Clark, White and Chandler. It’s the oldest story in the world. The kid comes to town, then the town changes the kid.
Cohen is the author of the soon-to-be-published “Israel Is Real.”