Maybe it’s the light, the brilliant golden light, that seems to make the shadows darker. Maybe because Los Angeles is situated as a tenuous oasis on the edge of deserts as unforgiving as the moon? It could be the skepticism of the mass-market dream machine, the fear of easily promised hope -- as Christopher Isherwood put it : ''California is a tragic country -- like Palestine, like every Promised Land.'' For whatever and many reasons, Los Angeles in fiction often focuses on the city’s dangerously dark side hiding under that sunny face, and this paradox has been the stuff of great writing to this day.
On Tuesday Nov 3 the Literature and Fiction Department is hosting four scribes who know LA’s dark side. At 7 PM, Steph Cha, Kim Cooper, Mary McCoy and Richard Lange will gather at the Mark Taper Auditorium in Central Library. These writers hold a common love for Los Angeles and its contradictions.
Korean-American Steph Cha grew up in Encino with a mom who encouraged her to read and write “without realizing those things would turn me into a writer”. A long-time Chandler fan, Cha was drawn by the noirish mysteries set in her hometown, yet “while I don't feel that removed from the American mainstream, I found it strange and discomforting that my community was more or less ignored in literature. “ Cha is broadening the genre, from both a Korean Angeleno and a female perspective, with her series featuring young yet worldly wise detective Juniper Song, the third installment of which, Dead Soon Enough, will win even more fans. While she herself is a fan of Didion and Ellroy, her love of Chandler is apparent, and his influence is not only felt but discussed in her novels, to much critical acclaim.
A love for Chandler is part of Kim Cooper’s love of LA history and its stories. Says the third-generation Angeleno: “I truly didn't realize until I left for college what an unusual place I came from. Since returning in the mid-1990s, I've taken great delight in ferreting out forgotten stories of Angelenos in ever more extreme situations, first for my own amusement and eventually as a profession.” Cooper pursued her interest first by creating the 1947project, the crime-a-day time travel blog, which spawned a series of popular crime bus tours, Esotouric Bus Adventures. Her research led her to write The Kept Girl, a fictionalization of the machinations of the Great Eleven, a scandalous religious cult operating in the 1920's. Though Cooper has nonfiction books under her belt, she felt that fiction was the appropriate approach to this story. In this way she was able to feature a troubled oil-company executive named Raymond Chandler, who is set on the trail of a killer Cooper finds particularly terrifying: the spiritual true believer who draws dozens of people in to share in her madness. The tale of spiritual seekers and con artists finds a great raconteuse in Cooper.
Richard Lange came to Los Angeles from the Central Valley at the age of 17, and as he says, “never left, and never will.” He writes about LA because, from a practical point of view, it’s the city which he knows the geography and culture the best. From the creative point of view, he’s also compelled by the many different types of people drawn to LA -- “winners and losers, strivers and scammers, hopeful and completely broken -- there are so many stories...I could write a story a day just about my walk to get coffee in the morning.” His stories and novels are much acclaimed; of his most recent story collection, Sweet Nothing, author T.C. Boyle exclaimed “Lange's stories combine the truth-telling and immediacy of Raymond Carver with the casual hip of Denis Johnson. There is a potent artistic sensibility at work here.”
For Lange, the darkness of LA has an avatar in the form of the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, who still freaks the other Richard out. “I remember how terrified the city was. This guy was a horror movie come to life, with the mutilations and satanic symbols. I was living in Koreatown at the time, and they found his car in the parking lot of the Chapman Market. He also used to patronize a bikini bar on Sixth Street, The Dragon Lady, where I spent a fair bit of time. I never saw him, or at least I don't think I did. You'd notice a glare like that, wouldn't you?” Here’s hoping we don’t find out!
Moderator Mary McCoy is an adopted Angeleno. A librarian with the Central Library, she had daily access to the historical collection, which was a boon as she was fascinated by the city’s history: “When I first started reading and writing about LA, I was drawn in by the Hollywood Babylon-esque details, but the deeper I dug, I started thinking about the real people involved. That's when I really got hooked because a lurid Hollywood story is only interesting if there are real, living, breathing, sympathetic characters behind them.” This approach is apparent in her novel Dead to Me, dubbed admiringly “teen LA Confidential”. Set in the 1940’s, the book features a teen who, spurred by her love of detective lore, sets out to find her wayward sister and finds much more than she expected.
McCoy’s favorite dark LA story is Megan Abbott's second novel, The Song is You, loosely based on an unsolved mystery: the disappearance of Jean Spangler, a young mother and aspiring starlet. A few days after she disappeared, police found her purse in Griffith Park with a note inside that read, “Kirk – Can’t wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work out best this way while mother is away…"
“Occam's razor doesn't even begin to help narrowing down the suspects and motives in this case,” notes McCoy. “There were rumors that Spangler was pregnant, and that she may have died following an illegal abortion. She'd recently appeared as an extra in a Kirk Douglas movie, and he was questioned. Spangler had ties to LA gangsters and the custody battle with her ex had been nasty. And police also received tips that Spangler wasn't dead at all and was hiding out in El Paso. So what happened? Nobody knows, and maybe nobody ever will.”
What we do know is that darkness is an enduring trope of Los Angeles stories, and these four writers are among the latest generation giving voice to that tradition. The authors will be signing books after the discussion.