Book Review: “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City”

“Other cities have histories, Los Angeles has legends. Advertised to the world as the Eden at the end of the Western frontier, (L.A.) turned out to be something very different – not the beatific Our Lady the Queen of the Angels advertised by it’s name but rather a dark, dangerous blonde.”

“L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” by John Buntin (2014)

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I’m thrilled to announce that this year I will be a regular monthly contributor to one of our great “Friends of SoulRide”, the “Cocktail Nation” radio show podcast. “Words With Wellsy” will be a regular segment that will be looking at books with vintage appeal.

My regular readers will know that I’m afflicted with what I call “Seasonal Interest Syndrome”. I’m drawn to certain kinds of media at certain times of year. Sometimes it’s more obvious – bossa nova and surf music in the summer – sometimes not so much. Not as clear to me is the origin of my gravitation towards film noir in the spring. I think the free film noir course I took through Turner Classic Movies and Ball State University years ago was in the spring. Anyways, back then, my pursuit of all things noir lead me to the video game “L.A. Noire” from Rockstar Games. In this game, you are Sgt. Cole Phelps (played by Aaron Staton from “Mad Men”), solving crimes and surveying the marvellously recreated streets of 1947 Los Angeles. Becoming slightly obsessed with this game lead me to search for reading material that might compliment the game. I purchased novels by James Ellroy, Jack Webb’s “The Badge” and the book we’re looking at today.

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Aaron Staton as Cole Phelps in “L.A. Noire”.

John Buntin’s “L.A. Noir” profiles the city of Los Angeles and it’s history as it relates to two major players in it’s story; Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen and Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker. Cohen started in LA as a lieutenant to Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and rose to be the leader of the rackets in the west. Parker was the “coldly cerebral” and incorruptible police chief who fought to keep the city free from the grip of organized crime.

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Chief Parker and Mickey Cohen.

The book is a fascinating look at an intriguing topic. So many of a reader’s appetites can be sated here, whether your bag is mid-century America, post-war Los Angeles, film noir, gangsters or law enforcement. Even fans of ’50’s television cop shows will get something out of this book.

The first interesting part of the story comes from the telling of Los Angeles’ origins as a city; it was called the “white spot of America”. With nothing geographically to recommend this arid bowl, the city’s founders promoted another benefit that could be gained by settling here; moral and racial purity. Word was sent out to Protestant’s across the land that Los Angeles was a place you could settle among your own kind and enjoy peace and safety in an environment free from crime and vice. Soldiers returning from war and wanting to make a clean breast were encouraged to make a home among like-minded people. Housing was inexpensive and there was a plot of land guaranteed for any who would make the trip west. Buntin says the city was “Deadwood writ large” – a boom town. Every trick of advertising was used to draw new residents. The existence of “Hollywoodland” certainly didn’t hurt.

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The magnificent Los Angeles City Hall, completed in 1928.

The only problem was this incorrupt Shangri-La was anything but. Like any young and prospering town, vice was rampant. And you cannot have vice without people to be in charge of this vice. Enter Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen and organized crime.

Another intriguing element of this great book is Buntin sharing the story of a “gas attack” that was reported in an article from the Los Angeles Times on July 26, 1943. The story stated that thousands of Angelenos were suffering from irritated eyes, and throats. There was a warning in the article that, unless this problem was fixed, Los Angeles could become a “deserted village”. The culprit, though, was not a gas attack at all. It was smog. Buntin says that by the summer of ’43, smog had transformed Los Angeles – starting almost from that very day – into “a noir city”.

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…and smokers were like “what smog?”

The book also talks about Christmas Eve 1951, the night when the LAPD assaulted a group of Latinos they had in their custody. A somewhat fictionalized version of this incident was later used as the catalyst of events in the film L.A. Confidential. The fall-out from the real life attack on these prisoners put the LAPD in a bad light; a situation that was eventually rectified by Jack Webb. And later in the book, Buntin describes Chief Parker’s role in combating the Watts riots and Mickey Cohen’s eventual incarceration and death.

This was the fascinating, pre-TV era of crime as entertainment and John Buntin tells his story briskly and with the right amount of detail. He is successful in L.A. Noir in recreating a seminal epoch in the history of America.

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TNT based their short-lived series Mob City on Buntin’s book.

I can highly recommend L.A. Noir by John Buntin. He writes in a style that is easy to digest and he draws you into his tale. The book is easily attained from Amazon or Abe Books. Do yourself a favour and pick it up. To hear my review of this book on the “Cocktail Nation” radio show podcast, click here.

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