That’s the question I’m pondering as I sift through stories set in L.A.’s past as editor of Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics.
Here are some authors I’m reading:
James Cain, Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, Charles Bukowski, Walter Mosley, Luis Rodriguez, Chester Himes, Cornell Woolrich, Leigh Brackett, Wanda Coleman, Fredric Brown, Gar Anthony Haywood, Gary Phillips, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Rechy, Budd Schulberg, Kate Braverman, Alberto Urrea, Hisaye Yamamoto, F.X. Toole, Earle Stanley Gardner, James Ellroy and Harlan Ellison.
Drop me a line if you’ve got a favorite classic L.A. crime story and I’ll try to read it. I could go as recently as the L.A. Riots of 1992 (a historic event, sadly) for the right story, but it needs to have a strong sense of place and time.
Akashic Books, my publisher, wants 14 stories with a rough 8,000 word maximum. Each story must have been published previously and must involve a murder and a sense of the past. We probably won’t be excerpting novels.
So even though I’m driving myself crazy trying to imagine how I might include a chapter of Horace McCoy’s incredibly noir 1935 novel “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” set in a Depression-era marathon dance contest on the Santa Monica Pier, you probably won’t see it in this new anthology.
Other novels that give me a strong L.A. noir feel are Yxta Maya Murray’s book “Locas,” Jervey Tervalon’s “Understand This,” many of Francesca Lia Block’s exquisite novels and Roland Jefferson’s 1971 classic “The School on 103rd Street.” T. C. Boyle is twisted enough but none of his L.A. stories include a murder. Dashiell Hammett would be a natural, but he never set any stories in L.A. African-American Donald Goines wrote gritty urban novels about pimps, hustlers, whores and killers but not in L.A., even though he and his wife lived here for awhile.
The way I see it, editing an anthology is akin to curating an art show. You want a broad spectrum of voices, some of them marquee names, some of them lesser known but equally fine. That means including women crime writers and authors of color.
But was there a Latino Raymond Chandler? How about a classic Asian-American crime writer? I’ve tracked down several mid-20th century Asian sleuths, but alas, the stories are set in Chicago. White men so dominated the crime fiction market in the mid-20th century that when Leigh Brackett walked onto the set of “The Big Sleep,” director Howard Hawks was stunned to learn he’d hired a dame to write the Chandler screenplay. Brackett, who wrote science fiction as well as crime novels, ended her career by co-writing “The Empire Strikes Back” for George Lucas.
I’d love to find crime stories set in the 19th century but L.A. was a dusty pueblo then. We simply don’t have the historic literary trove – especially short stories – of the Eastern Seaboard.
One thing I’ve noticed is that most big-time authors were eventually lured West to work in Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Cornell Woolrich and many others languished as studio screenwriters and eventually wrote a story or two that drew on their experience. But most of those stories are set in Hollywood and one of the calling cards of the City Noir series is that each short story be set in a different neighborhood. Which means I can only choose one.
So my search continues. Lately I’ve discovered William Campbell Gault, who wrote a fine mid-century story about an Armenian-American sleuth. I figure that to come up with my final 14, I’ll probably read at least 300 stories.