Los Angeles Noir
Edited by Denise Hamilton
GUEST REVIEW BY DANIEL A. OLIVAS
In 2004, New York-based Akashic Books launched a delightfully audacious noir series with each volume comprised of new fiction set in one locale. The first book was Brooklyn Noir followed by volumes based in Miami, London, San Francisco, New Orleans, and other cities. The series has garnered critical acclaim as well as literary awards.
Now comes Los Angeles Noir ($15.95 paperback) edited by bestselling novelist, Denise Hamilton, creator of the Eve Diamond series. As Akashic Books notes, L.A. is the birthplace of noir. Writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Nathanael West used the city’s underbelly to tell stories in a way that transformed crime fiction forever. So, the authors featured in Los Angeles Noir have big gumshoes to fill.
And fill them they do.
Seventeen writers contribute to Los Angeles Noir: Michael Connelly, Janet Fitch, Susan Straight, Héctor Tobar, Patt Morrison, Emory Holmes II, Robert Ferrigno, Gary Phillips, Christopher Rice, Naomi Hirahara, Jim Pascoe, Scott Phillips, Diana Wagman, Neal Pollack, Lienna Silver, Brian Ascalon Roley, as well as Hamilton herself. It is clear from the page-turning narratives and hardboiled lingo that these writers know their literary roots. This does not imply, however, that they fall into mere mimicry.
For example, there’s Naomi Hirahara’s “Number 19” which begins: “The Korean women, lined up in black bras and underpants, pushed and pulled the flesh on their individual tables as if they were kneading dough.” This is what the penurious waitress, Ann, sees at the Koreatown spa before getting her “salt scrub” from a woman known only by a number. As with all good noir, things are not quite what they seem as we follow Ann into her growing obsession with Number 19. Neither do things end very nicely -- to put it mildly -- but the conclusion is anything but predictable.
Héctor Tobar offers a withering literary attack on the proliferation of guns in his East Hollywood tale, “Once More, Lazarus.” A weary Detective Sanabria investigates the shooting of a fourteen-year-old Daniel José Cruz. It turns out that Cruz and his teenage friends found a loaded gun at a construction site. As the detective eventually learns, Cruz “had taken the gun, and like the little boy and knucklehead he really was, he had turned the barrel toward himself to look inside.” Though he should have died from the wound, Cruz almost miraculously cheats death like Lazarus of the Bible. But how long will this teenager’s luck continue in this city filled with so many instruments of destruction?
Some of the stories take place in the wealthier parts of town such as in Patt Morrison’s “Morocco Junction 90210” where she notes that when you drive into Beverly Hills, “the road under your wheels isn’t asphalt anymore. It’s butter. Beverly Hills must have a law: Pavement shall at all times be as smooth and creamy as the faces of the makeup-counter girls at Saks.” And, of course, the moneyed denizens of the 90210 will do almost anything to keep their dirty little secrets safe from their neighbors.
Christopher Rice has West Hollywood covered in “Over Thirty” which introduces us to Jawbone, a near-ghost of a man: “The bus bench at the intersection of Santa Monica and La Cienega was empty, which meant that Jawbone was probably holed up in a shelter somewhere, possibly drying out from the combo of malt liquor and meth that kept him shouting at passing traffic for days on end.” But is he really at a shelter? Ben, an over thirty, out-of-work actor, comes home unexpectedly that night and stumbles upon an apparent tryst between his lover, Ron, and the drug-addled Jawbone. How could Ron do this to Ben? Once again, circumstances are a lot more complicated -- and bloodier -- than they first appear.
With Los Angeles Noir, the mean streets of L.A. are a little meaner not to mention a lot more diverse than they were portrayed during the era of J. Edgar Hoover, well-worn fedoras, and three-martini lunches at the Brown Derby. These stories are cinematic, violent little gems of contemporary crime fiction that are a must-read for any true fan of noir.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books of fiction including Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press). He shares blogging duties on La Bloga, which is dedicated to Chicano literature. Olivas is a book critic for the El Paso Times and The Multicultural Review. His Web site is www.danielolivas.com and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.