Tuesday, October 22, 2019

20 Essential L.A. Crime Books - Some Classics, Some Surprises

Because so many of us are fans of crime fiction, I thought it would be fun to take a look at “The 20 Essential L.A. Crime Books” highlighted by The Los Angeles Times in an October 17 article. It’s not that it’s particularly difficult to predict most of the twenty books on the list, but there are a few surprises that I want to take a look at now – and honestly? It’s kind of nice to have a little validation of my book choices, for a change. I'll start with a group of nine books - eight of which I've read (the books are not ranked):

The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye – both by Raymond Chandler, the guy I consider to be the grandfather of L.A. crime fiction. The Big Sleep (1939) is the first Phillip Marlowe novel and it was adapted for two major motion pictures, one in 1946 starring Humphrey Bogart and one in 1978 starring Robert Mitchum. The Long Goodbye (1953) is one of Chandler’s later novels and features a drunken writer character that Chandler based largely on own himself. The novel won the Edgar Award for Best novel in 1955. 

The Onion Field – Joseph Wambaugh seemed to come out of nowhere with the publication of this 1973 true crime book, the story of two policeman kidnapped by ex-cons and taken to a remote Bakersfield-area onion field for execution. One cop died, one managed to escape. Wambaugh is an ex-cop himself, and his account of the crime and its traumatic aftermath was favorably compared to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Wambaugh was everywhere for a few years; I remember seeing him for the first time on the old Johnny Carson Show.

The Black Echo and The Last Coyote – both by Michael Connelly, the first being the novel via which the world was introduced to Connelly’s long-running character, the great Harry Bosch. The Last Coyote (1995) is the fourth book in the series that has now reached twenty-three books in total, and it’s the one in which the story started to as much about Harry’s personal life as it is about the crimes he solves. Somehow, even though I've read most of the twenty-three books now, I have never gone back to read The Black Echo (1992), an oversight I’m going to fix very soon.

Devil in a Blue Dress – Walter Mosley set this 1990 novel in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles and used it to introduce black detective Easy Rawlins to the world. There are now fourteen books in the Easy Rawlins series, but they constitute only a portion of what the prolific Mosely has produced in the meantime. Mosely has written two other series, numerous standalone novels, several nonfiction books, some YA Fiction, some science fiction, plays, graphic novels, and screenplays. That’s over 50 books for anyone who’s counting.

Get Shorty – Elmore Leonard pushed all the right L.A. buttons in this novel about Hollywood and the studio system. Honestly though, Get Shorty is not one of my favorite Elmore Leonard books, and I'm a big Elmore Leonard fan. Leonard wrote some of the best dialogue the genre has ever seen – and, I would argue that his dialogue is every bit as good as, if not better than, most anything found in literary fiction.

Double Indemnity – This James M. Cain novella, along with his 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, was instrumental in turning me into a lifelong crime fiction fan. Double Indemnity was written in 1943, and was originally published as part of a three-novella collection. I remember how disappointed I was to learn that Cain had not written a whole lot after the 1950s even though he did not die until 1977. I'm greedy; I wanted more.

Helter Skelter – a true crime account (1974) of the Charles Manson cult murders that so frightened the country back in the day. One of the book’s co-authors, Vincent Bugliosi, is the man who actually prosecuted the case against Manson and his murderous followers in 1970.  The book has probably received as much criticism as it has praise, but it most certainly captures a point in time that those of who were around back then will never forget. 

Now, the ones with which I'm familiar but have not read - and may never read:

Black Dahlia (1987)and L.A. Confidential (1990) – both of by James Ellroy and both considered to be classics of their type. I have read neither of them, however, for one simple reason: I sat through a James Ellroy session at the Texas Book Festival several years ago during which the author astounded me by his lack of ability to go three consecutive sentences without dropping an F-Bomb somewhere in them. I acknowledge that Ellroy is a really good writer, but on this occasion he severely misjudged his audience (which included several small children and their mothers). I’m not sure if Ellroy was trying to sound like one of his own lowlife characters, make himself look cooler than he probably is, or is just incapable of speaking without cursing. Whichever the case may be, I haven’t exactly felt the urge to read the man’s books ever since that morning. 

That leaves nine others that are either new to me or that I know very little about, including True Confessions which I do remember as having been adapted into an interesting movie starring the great Robert Duval, who acted circles around Robert De Niro. 

Here are the nine:

True Confessions (1977)John Gregory Dunne’s take on the famous Los Angeles “Black Dahlia” murder case that also spawned the Black Dahlia novel by Ellroy.

Dorothy B. Hughes
In a Lonely Place (1947) – Dorothy B. Hughes helped break new ground for female writers in the genre with this one and has been called an “early feminist voice” as a result. She wrote some fourteen hardboiled crime novels and won the Edgar Grand Master Award in 1978. To say that she is underrated today is an understatement. This is one I definitely want to read.

The Grifters (1963) – Jim Thompson wrote this classic novel about con artists in Los Angeles. Thompson was so good that the Washington Post once said of him, “If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it.” High praise, indeed. Looking through my notes, I see that I have only ever read one Jim Thompson novel, and it wasn’t The Grifters. I really need to do something about that.

Joe Ide
IQ (2016) – This one by Joe Ide was the introduction to a new series featuring Isaiah Quintabe, a Los Angeles detective who is more brain than muscle. IQ was the debut both for the Quintabe character and for its author who has now written three books in this series – still a short series, so now is the time to take a look if you are one who prefers to read them in order.

Southland (2003) from Nina Revoyr, is a novel centered on the deaths of four young black men in a Japanese-American’s convenience store during the Watts Riots of 1965. It tells of two families with a shared history from the 1930s all the way through the 1990s. This one sounds so good that I can’t believe it got by me in 2003. I’ll be looking for it.

The Moving Target (1949) is Ross Macdonald’s introduction of Lew Archer, the character who would be featured in almost twenty books over the course of Macdonald’s career. I’ve read three of the Lew Archer books but the series never caught my imagination the way some others did. Now, however, I’m curious enough about this one. 

The Tattooed Soldier (1998) from H├ęctor Tobar sounds like a great psychological thriller/crime novel. The main character is a Guatemalan refugee living in Los Angeles who stumbles across the death-squad soldier responsible for killing his entire family back in Guatemala. Interestingly, this is another novel set during the time of the Watts Riots. (It’s starting to look like my 2020 reading plan is going to include a lot of fiction from the 1990s and early 2000s.)

Steph Cha
Your House Will Pay (2019) by Steph Cha was published just two days before the Los Angeles Times published the list I’m working from here. It focuses on the big city racial tensions between Koreans and Blacks and has already been highly praised by the likes of Michael Connelly and Attica Locke. (Well, at least I didn’t miss this one, so on the list for next year, it goes.)

No Human Involved (1997) by Barbara Seranella is a different take on the “man on the run” novel. This time it’s a woman who’s wanted for murder and trying to hide in the shadows long enough to figure out an escape plan. It doesn’t help that she’s also trying to kick a heroin habit at the same time. But for now, she’s working as an auto mechanic and trying to keep her head down. Sounds like another good one.

And there you have it. Because the earliest of the books goes back to 1939 and the latest was published just a few days ago, these twenty books give a nice historical overview of the evolution of crime fiction over the last eight decades. It's kind of a shame that there are only four women represented in this list of twenty books, but I suspect that that ratio will never be this heavily weighted again. The times, they are a changing. 


  1. I enjoy crime fiction, but I haven't read any of these. YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY is one I want to get to, though.

    1. That one and Southland have similar themes, sounds like. I'm intrigued by both of those and they will be the first two that I try to get hold of.

  2. Like Susan, I haven't read any of these (that might be because they're US-centric, although I do read quite a few crime books from across The Pond) so plenty to investigate here. Thanks for the recs.

    1. All of these, Cath, are set in and around Los Angeles. The city is lucky that several of the classic writers of hardboiled crime fiction spent so much time in the city and set their novels there. The draw of Hollywood, of course, explains why that happened. There are some good ones on the list for sure.