April 2010

The Slow Fade from B&W into Color

Los Angeles

Turns out noir fiction isn't just the province of straight white men by Denise Hamilton

Los Angeles has changed dramatically since Raymond Chandler's time.

The orange groves and lima-bean fields where mobsters once dumped bodies are now suburbs. The mansions of Bunker Hill have given way to skyscrapers. And we've morphed into a sprawling Pacific Rim megalopolis in which 90-plus languages are spoken in the public schools.

But the archetypal midcentury sleuth in post-WWII noir was a straight white male vet who lived alone and drank too much. Women characters typically fell into one of two stereotypes: the femme fatale who lured the sap to his doom or the good girl who needed to be saved. Sometimes at the end, the good girl was revealed as the femme fatale.

The Los Angeles of classic noir was a white Protestant city where Japanese gardeners, Filipino houseboys and sultry Latin temptresses served as colorful props. Gays, when depicted at all, were louche. The black community caroused at juke joints on Central Avenue, where the intrepid white sleuth boldly ventured to gather clues.

Even Hollywood masterpieces stuck to this script. Consider the classic line that was a metaphor for everything illicit and unknowable about 1930s L.A: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

In spite of the novels and films, though, L.A. was always culturally diverse. The pueblo was founded by a ragtag group of Spaniards, Indians, mulattoes and freed slaves. We were born mezclado, so why has it taken so long for noir literature to reflect our colorful polyglot world?

I guess right about now, I better make one thing clear: I love noir. As an L.A. native, journalist and crime novelist, the genre is encoded into my DNA. Noir makes sense to me on a cellular level: Reading Chandler for the first time was like coming home to a world I'd forgotten I knew.

Still, it wasn't until I read Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series in the early '90s that it struck me: Mosley writes about post-WWII L.A., too, but he's the complete opposite of Chandler. In Mosley's world, when the nosy white dick (aka Philip Marlowe, for Chandler) shows up, it's only a momentary distraction. As soon as he leaves, Mosley's characters get back to business.

It turns out Mosley wasn't the only noir writer of color. His Devil in a Blue Dress led me to Chester Himes, who wrote crime novels and short stories set in 1940s black Los Angeles. But where were the midcentury Asian or Latino sleuths? Why was every story set along the beach-Hollywood-downtown axis? And where, oh where, were the women scribblers?

The frails who wrote were right under my nose, but Dorothy B. Hughes, Leigh Brackett and Margaret Millar are hardly household names, and their books are, for the most part, out of print. This is a felony, as all three dames wrote groundbreaking 1940s crime fiction every bit as compelling as noir's big boys.

Hughes' classic In a Lonely Place (which became a movie starring Humphrey Bogart) is a groundbreaking psychological thriller told from the perspective of a male serial killer.

Hollywood director Howard Hawks was such a fan of Brackett he ordered his secretary to get "this guy Brackett" to help William Faulkner write the screenplay of The Big Sleep—which Brackett did! She also wrote science fiction and ended her amazing 40-year career cowriting The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas.

Millar, wife of the better-known Ross Macdonald, was thought by some critics to outwrite her husband. So why is Macdonald enshrined in the noir canon while his wife and her noir sisters languish in semi-obscurity? Is the most important requirement for noir a penis? These thoughts rattled like aimless marbles in my brain until several years ago, when Akashic Books asked me to compile a short-story anthology called Los Angeles Noir. That led me to think hard about the genre, how the classics depicted L.A. and whether noir is still relevant to 21st-century readers.

The answer is a resounding yes.

Los Angeles is more noir today than ever—but it's a Blade Runner–esque noir where the First World lives cheek by jowl with the Third World. Still, Angelenos connect across lines of race and class and geography—especially when crime, secrets and passion intersect. They may come from Bangalore and Sinaloa more often than Sioux City, but they still reinvent themselves and leave the past behind.

If Raymond Chandler—an astute observer of his adopted city—were alive today, he'd be setting scenes in the Chinese-millionaire enclave of San Marino or Latino barrios like Pico-Union. His sleuth would speak Tagalog or Korean or live in a Persian palace in Woodland Hills. And her name might be Phillipa.

This is because, at its essence, noir isn't about trench coats, Venetian blinds or guns. It's a vibe, a mood, a state of mind. And L.A. remains the ultimate femme fatale, dangling riches and great fame and asking only for your soul in return. With the stakes today higher than ever, people have farther to fall. And if noir tells stories of desperate, marginalized people, who has historically fit this bill better than women, gays and people of color?

And yet it was the great hole in the doughnut of classic noir.

So I began to scour L.A. literature for voices that had fallen by the wayside, voices that hadn't been heard loudly. I knew my next anthology would include the holy triumvirate of Chandler, Cain and Macdonald, but I also realized it couldn't be limited by them.

And so I brought in Chester Himes, Brackett and Millar. You'll also find Joseph Hansen, who published his first novel about a gay insurance investigator named Dave Brandstetter back in 1970, when homosexuality was just entering the consciousness of straights in the wake of the Stonewall riots in New York City.

William Campbell Gault contributes a story about an Armenian-American PI who munches lahmajun and hangs out in his Uncle Vartan's carpet store. Naomi Hirahara writes about an adulterous Japanese-American wife who married her husband in the Manzanar internment camp. Yxta Maya Murray's tale delves into girl gangs in pregentrified Echo Park, and Mosley's Socrates Fortlow story follows an ex-con living off a Watts alley.

To those who find my choices controversial, I ask: Do we really need another anthology by the usual suspects? After a while, the shoot-'em-up gangsters, double-crossing dames, world-weary alcoholic PI stories set in Hollywood all start to sound claustrophobically alike. And I read a lot of them—about 500 short stories and 50 novels—looking for the ones that finally made it into my anthology.

My approach was hardly some grim exercise with a multicultural checklist, but it was a concerted effort to show L.A. in all its diverse glory and to set each story in a different neighborhood so that the resulting collection moves like a literary travelogue from the inland valleys to the canyons to the hardscrabble flats, barrios and middle-class suburbs, the mansions of the wealthy and the shores of the Pacific Ocean, where we run out of continent.

Critics and award committees have been kind. The first volume of Los Angeles Noir sat on bestseller lists—and Susan Straight's story "The Golden Gopher," set in a sleazy downtown bar, even won the prestigious Edgar Award. Now we've just published Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics.

Our cultural diversity has made Los Angeles a global trendsetter. It has always lurked on the edges of noir fiction, but in the 21st century, it moves to center stage.

Denise Hamilton is editor of the Los Angeles Noir anthologies and penned the Eve Diamond crime novels and The Last Embrace, set in 1949 Hollywood.