How do I kill thee?
Let me count the ways.
There are few sights more awesome than flying into Los Angeles at night. You’re high above a pitch-dark desert and then, it seems to happen all at once, you are sailing over a carpet of sparkling jewels. The plane slows, time stands still, and the glittering lights go on and on, as far as the eye can see. Could anything, you wonder, really be so vast?
Yes, it is. And therein lies a problem when one tries to write about the city, and particularly when one wants to write about the mysteries of the city: which city, exactly? Because there are a myriad of L.A.s, encompassing both time and space, and all of them steeped in mystery, murder, violence.
There’s the split personality L.A. of the thirties and forties, rigidly conservative on the outside, wildly bohemian on the inside (for inside, read: the film set); there’s the noir L.A. of the forties and fifties; the suddenly sophisticated L.A. of the eighties and nineties, the jam packed road rage city of the new century.
Even more dizzying is the geography. When you go from Hollywood, up Laurel Canyon, to the Valley, it is as if you enter another world: “In the summer, the valley would be thick with smog and visibility limited to no more than a few miles, but now, the air washed clean by rain, it spread out before her in all its immensity, seeming to go on and on forever before it collided with the purple gray mountains in the distance. She turned off Mulholland to weave her way down Laurel Canyon…The sidewalks were mostly empty. People didn’t walk much here, though there were groups of children playing, and a mailman plodded wearily along his route, a terrier yapping at him from behind a wire fence.” (The Astral: Till The Day I Die, V.J. Banis; Wildside Press, 2007)
The San Fernando Valley, Chandler’s fictional Idle Valley, once mostly arid wasteland until the water came, and fortunes sprang up like weeds, fertilized by greed, and enriched with blood. See the movie, Chinatown-there’s a mega dose of truth there, a glimpse of the real Los Angeles, the story the Valley Girls don’t tell you.
Downtown L.A., East L.A., Compton, West Hollywood (known to some as Boy’s Town)-superficially, these diverse communities have little in common beyond the freeways that connect them. And what about tawdry-chic Beverly Hills, or old money San Marino and Hancock Park, or Malibu and Thousand Oaks? Or Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard?
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There are elements, though, that all of these cities have in common. Beauty, for instance. L. A. is all about beauty. The beautiful people. The term was invented here, and rightly so. For generations upon generations, the most beautiful women, the handsomest men, flocked to this movie mecca, to try their luck at the film studios. A few of them made it. Some of the others went down in flames, jumping from hillside signs, flinging themselves into the ocean, taking too many pills to ease the pain and the loneliness.
Most of them ended less dramatically. They married, had beautiful children, who became stunning cocktail mixers and handsome waiters and sexy gas pump jockeys. As beautiful as their setting: the Los Angeles of white sand beaches and green clad hills and swaying palm trees.
But the sand covers some gruesome debris; the hills slide down on the highways-and the houses-below. The palm trees are infested with rats. And underneath all that beauty, flows an ugly current: crime. Murder, especially, and you are just as dead when murdered by a hot guy as a plain one, midst the splendor of Bel Air or in Boyle Heights. Murder knows neither jockstrap size nor neighborhood.
Not just real life crime either, though there has never been any shortage of that, and often left unsolved. William Desmond Taylor, a bullet in the back. Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia, her naked body mutilated and tossed into an empty lot. Georgette Bauerdorf, strangled in her bathtub. Thelma Todd: a suicide, the jury said, from car exhaust-but no one ever explained where the blood came from. And beautiful Marilyn, all those troublesome questions never quite resolved. Mysteries that linger, answers never found-or at least, never told. To paraphrase writer Carolyn See, “Los Angeles is where crazy things happen.”
Los Angeles is the capital city of fictional crime, too, and Raymond Chandler is its patron saint: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make you nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. Anything can happen.” (Red Wind, short story by Raymond Chandler, 1938 )
Pages, notebooks, probably entire books have been made up of Chandler’s lines. But there are other L. A. writers whose names come to mind instantly: Ross McDonald, James Elroy, Michael Connelly, Joseph Wambaugh, Joseph Hansen and Josh Lanyon – a long list, too long to include them all here. “Poets,” as Edmund Wilson puts it, “of the tabloid murder.”
Noir was invented here, too. In L. A. noir, it’s nearly always night; and not just ordinary night, either. “The streets were dark with something more than night,” as Chandler puts it. And, day or not, it’s raining. The sun seems never to shine:
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And movies, all those delicious, chilling stories unfolding on the movie screens. Incest, murder, and a bloody nose: “Forget it, Jake, it’s only Chinatown.” Double Indemnity (script by Chandler and Wilder, from Cain’s inferior novella): Barbara Stanwyck, descends the stairs wearing an ankle bracelet and never has wickedness been so tempting. Robert Mitchum falls for a beautiful Jane Greer from Out of the Past, and finds himself falling into an abyss of evil. The best of L.A.’s movies, like L.A.’s books, are the bad ones.
Here is what the mystery writers have always known about this, their much adopted city: If it is, as its boosters like to boast, The City of The Angels, they are the dark angels, Lucifer’s minions. If the city has a soul, and they say all cities do, it is surely a damned one.
But where to find it, this demon soul, where to begin the search? At downtown’s Bradbury Building, perhaps. If you’ve seen Double Indemnity, or Blade Runner, you’ll recognize the sight. If you’re a mystery reader, something in you will respond to the open atrium, seemingly soaring free, in fact bound in by twisting walls of wrought iron lace, reaching up, up, imprisoning the light, smothering it in eerie shadows.
You’ve only to step outside and cross the street, and there is the Angel’s Flight of Michael Connelly’s eponymous novel, a cable car that takes you—exactly nowhere. Up the hillside, and back down again, and you’re right back where you started. Connelly’s Harry Bosch often finds himself in the same impasse. The freeways, rivers of cars, seemingly carrying you away; but no one escapes.
Travel out Wilshire Boulevard. Could anything be more ironically symbolic of the city than the ancient La Brea Tar Pits? Lured by its opaline surface, beasts millennia ago came to drink and found themselves trapped in its deadly mire, drowning in its dark beauty. The story remains the same. Only the victims change.
Drive up to Hollywood, and stroll The Boulevard. They’ve been cleaning it up for years, but the odor of the hustle remains. Musso and Frank’s is still there, though, mostly unchanged since the twenties. Have a flawless martini at the splendid old bar and look around you. It’s not hard at all to imagine yourself back in the twenties or the thirties. One of those places where time seems to have stood still.
Take Sunset Boulevard west. The elegant nightclubs and boites of the forties are gone now, but the Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi died, remains; and so do the hopefuls, the wannabes, the users and the used, who crowd the coffee shops and the cafes, spill onto the sidewalks, searching the faces of the passing strangers, turning away as the strangers search theirs.
In Santa Monica-Chandler’s Bay City, and as far west as you can go-stroll out onto the pier where Cain’s Mildred Pierce contemplated jumping. Joe Hansen’s merry-go-round is still there, its music still appropriately just a little off key. Los Angeles music. The city is ever a little off key.
And back again to the Valley, still searching for the soul of the city. No one ever seems to find it, though. Maybe it’s in the dream, that elusive soul-this is the city of dreams, after all, they manufacture them here. Or, maybe it blows through the air, like Chandler’s Santa Ana winds. Or is it in the sunshine, brown as it filters through the ever-present smog? Old timers like to talk of a day when there was no smog, but that too is only a dream. The Indians used to call the L.A. Basin “The Valley of the Smokes.”
It was always polluted. The furtive danger that seeps into your lungs and poisons you from within; the gleaming pool of tar-water that entraps and destroys when you come to drink from it-the ugliness was always there, perhaps the one inescapable truth of Los Angeles.
The beauty is only a distraction.