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BOOK REVIEW:

The kept girl/ by Kim Cooper.

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During the first few decades of the twentieth century, Los Angeles had more than its share of medical and/or religious celebrities who offered their worshipful followers a cure for ailments both physical and mental.  In her first novel, Kim Cooper, who has made a career out of sharing her knowledge of the more bizarre episodes in local history on her Esotouric bus tours, focuses on one such Southern California cult of the 1920s:  the Great Eleven.

Run by a mother-daughter team, the Great Eleven used "Mother May" Blackburn's magnetic personality and "Sister Ruth" Wieland's beauty to convince a considerable number of people that the two women were writing a book being dictated to them by angels.  The finished book, it was promised, would provide cult members with whatever they desired most, whether it be bringing a dead loved one back to life or discovering the perfect spot to drill for oil.  One of the Great Eleven's principal believers and benefactors was Clifford Dabney, whose uncle was president of the oil company where Raymond Chandler was working in 1929.

Cooper uses these facts to imagine what would have happened if Chandler's boss had asked him to investigate the Great Eleven and find how they'd spent his nephew's entire fortune.  The Ray Chandler we meet in these pages is 40 and still a few years away from starting a new career as a detective story writer.  His oil company vice-presidency is lucrative and not particularly demanding of his time and abilities--which is fortunate, since Ray has a major alcohol problem and is often suicidal.  His drinking has caused serious difficulties in his marriage to Cissy, and he has set up his attractive and devoted young secretary, Muriel Fischer, as a "kept girl" in an apartment he pays for.

Feeling out of his element in what may prove to be a criminal investigation, Ray turns to an acquaintance for help.  Tom James is the local beat cop in the downtown neighborhood where Ray has his office, but his abilities had previously earned him an administrative position in the LAPD before his intolerance for corruption in the police force and the mayor's office got him demoted.  James (who may have been a partial inspiration for Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe) joins Ray and Muriel on the trail of the Great Eleven, and the story's point of view shifts among the three of them.

It turns out that the cult has a compound (donated by Clifford Dabney) in the Santa Susanna Pass west of Chatsworth, and Muriel, against Ray's wishes, decides to pose as a potential convert in order to get inside.  Her time away from the office and from Ray also leads her to question the life she has been leading as a "kept girl".  Incidentally, the book's title takes on a macabre double meaning as it becomes clear that the Great Eleven had a penchant for holding onto the bodies of deceased members.

Kim Cooper creates a fascinating, believable portrait of Los Angeles just before the Great Depression.  Her characterizations are particularly adept, ranging from the various schemers, loonies, and perverts who populate the Great Eleven to her three flawed but sympathetic protagonists.  Editing errors common to self-published books are distracting at times, but they are far outweighed by the skilled writing and the chance to explore a forgotten episode from L.A.'s checkered past.


 

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