The novelist patrols California’s meanest streets for its hardest boiled storytellers, picking up some very unusual suspects
Jonathan Kellerman writes tales of crime and detection which expose the shadowy side of glittering Los Angeles. After a career in child psychology, he turned to writing full time. He lives in southern California with his wife, the novelist Faye Kellerman, and their four children.
“I tend to avoid lists, as I don’t like reductionism in general, have never viewed writing fiction as a competitive sport and, let’s face it, someone good is always going to be excluded. There are many fine contemporary writers covering the LA scene — Robert Crais’s latest novel is first rate. But I’m going to concentrate on older books, because it was the previous generation of noir which inspired me to begin the Delaware series over a quarter of a century ago. I’m also going to expand the parameters from Los Angeles proper to southern California: LA isn’t a city, it’s a concept which applies anywhere in the Golden State where nice weather abounds, a chasm yawns between the haves and the have-nots, and delusional blind ambition is habitually confused with work ethic and wisdom. Given that preamble, here are a few standouts.”
1. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Not a crime novel per se, this book remains the finest account of Hollywood heartbreak ever written. If it’s noir you’re looking for, this one’s saturated with nuclear fatalism. And would-be starlets.
2. Any novel by Ross MacDonald
When contemporary reviewers search for a noir icon they inevitably come up with Raymond Chandler. But although Chandler’s work was seminal and his alcohol-fuelled chronic depression generated a helluva lot of witty metaphors, his plotting skills never advanced very far. Ross MacDonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar), on the other hand, was a master of structure and story, as well as a writer of immense grace, sensitivity and insight. To my mind, MacDonald was easily the better of the two, and many crime novelists concur. His stories sometimes descend to LA and its environs, but his primary locale is 90 miles to the north in Santa Barbara, which he called Santa Theresa (a conceit adopted by the ever-witty, skillful Sue Grafton.) The Chill stands out as the ultimate Freudian crime novel and a later book, The Underground Man, melds natural disaster, in this case a forest fire, with grisly killings in a way that expands the novel beyond whodunit and whydunit but never lapses into pretentiousness. But really, any Macdonald will do.
3. Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer
A creepy, evocative gem which has sunk, unfortunately, into obscurity. Latimer’s take on the psychology of fanaticism is as fresh as today’s headlines. The sense of place is powerful, the language tough and funny. Latimer, like many novelists who failed to achieve prominence as such, ended up writing for film and TV — a noir story in itself.
4. and 5. The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
Thirty years on, James Ellroy’s early books remain fresh: he was writing about the monstrous psychopaths who later became familiarised as serial killers back when no else could even imagine people like that existed. (I’ll take some partial credit here: my fourth novel, The Butcher’s Theatre, covered the same grisly ground because my background in psychology led me to explore the darkest aspects of human behaviour. I set the book in Jerusalem, but there are some LA scenes. Butcher was written in 1985; Ellroy and I were hanging out regularly back then and I’ve come to realize that the gore level of Butcher may be related to some of our more “interesting” conversations.) Ellroy’s first works — Brown’s Requiem, Clandestine, Blood on the Moon and the other Lloyd Hopkins police procedurals — are great reads; The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere stand out to me as masterpieces. The first uses a famous unsolved true crime as a springboard for beautiful writing and the best type of social commentary — that which masquerades as entertainment. The second is, literally and figuratively, a bigger book, and is, in my opinion, Ellroy’s magnum opus.
6. The Lady In The Lake by Raymond Chandler
My initial comments about Chandler notwithstanding, The Lady In The Lake is a great read and you can’t quibble with Ol’ Ray’s .45 caliber cynicism and stunningly accurate feel for Los Angeles.
7. The Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm
A gorgeously taut bit of nastiness.
8. The Kinsey Milhone books by Sue Grafton
Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone books, though sometimes mistaken for lighthearted when compared to all the testosterone-laden stuff out there, really do belong in the SoCal noir tradition. Sue’s writing chops are at virtuoso level — she makes it look easy when it’s not — and her feel for the region is second to none.
9. Frederick Brown, Horace McCoy, Charles Bukowski
Two other relatively unsung hardboiled novelists who deserve attention. Bukowski’s poetry, meanwhile, is a perfect adjunct to murky nights immersed in hardboiled fiction and good — or bad — booze.
10. The Resnick novels by John Harvey
Finally, I’m going to go out on a huge geographic limb and say that John Harvey’s Nottingham-based Resnick series has always struck me as more LA noir than many books actually set in the city. In any event, they’re a blast to read.