Los Angeles, even more than sun, surf and celebrities, is pure literature. This a personal selection of five great novels set in LA. There are many others and I am curious to see what you might propose.
The High Window – Raymond Chandler
It is a 1942 novel, the third featuring private detective Philip Marlowe. A wealthy mean widow, a missing daughter-in-law with a past, and a gold coin worth a fortune. These are the only elements of this story until Marlowe discovers evidence of murder, rape, blackmail, and the worst kind of human exploitation. It is a sort of psychological investigation magnificently written and set between Pasadena and Bunker Hill. “The house was on Dresden House in the Oak Knoll section of Pasadena, a big solid coll-looking house with burgundy brick walls, a terra cotta tile roof and a white stone trim…There was a heavy scent of summer in the morning and everything that grew was perfectly still in the breathless air they get over there on what they call a nice coll day.”
Ask the Dust – John Fante
Published in 1939, the most famous of Fante’s Bandini books. The semi-autobiographical story of young Arturo Bandini, who moves to LA from Colorado to become a writer. He falls in love with a Mexican waitress, and they embark on mad relationship that takes them on a journey through 1930s Los Angeles. A great part of this work is set by Fante in the Bunker Hill section of Downtown LA. “I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark streets”. Charles Bukowsky wrote a foreword to this novel, stating very simply and clearly “Fante was my god”.
Post Office – Charles Bukowski
Bukowski spent much of his early years as a struggling writer, paying his bills as a postal worker until the late 60s when he quit the post office and went working for Black Sparrow publishing. From then until his death, he lived in a bungalow in East Hollywood. Much of the LA of his books still exists, from bars and liquor stores he frequented to former residences and Downtown LA’s Postal Annex Terminal where he worked. In the novel, his alter ego, Chinaski, works as postman. He hates and in his spare time, he writes, chases women, gets drunk, gets in fights. “So I took the exam, passed it, took the physical, passed it, and there I was—a substitute mail carrier. It began easy. I was sent to West Avon Station and it was just like Christmas except I didn’t get laid. Every day I expected to get laid but I didn’t. But the soup was easy and I strolled around doing a block here and there. I didn’t even have a uniform, just a cap. I wore my regular clothes. The way my shackjob Betty and I drank there was hardly money for clothes.Then I was transferred to Oakford Station.”
Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis
The first published work of Ellis appeared in 1985 when he was only 21. It tells the story of Clay, home from winter break from college, his ex/current girlfriend Blair, his best friend Julian. They dine at Spago, drink, drug and f..k their way across the city. It’s a book about money, privilege, loss, friendship, love, lack of love. Blair, Clay’s girlfriend, studies at USC and much of the action takes place in mansions across Beverly Hills after dark. “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up the onramp. “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. . . . Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blair’s car. All it comes down to is that I’m a boy coming home for a month and meeting someone whom I haven’t seen for four months and people are afraid to merge.
The Last Coyote – Micheal Connolly
I have developed a real addiction to the stories of LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. I have to thank Federica for this. I read my first Michael Connolly novel after seeing her devouring his books on the beach last summer. As it is often the case, I was a bit skeptical and snobbish about a best selling author. I was wrong. Of the many stories of the Harry Bosch saga, I chose this one where at the same time Los Angeles shows her wounds after the 1992 racial riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake and Harry investigates his own past. “This time, he wanted to be sure he was ready before he opened it, so he sat there for a long time just studying the cracked plastic cover as if it held some clue to his preparedness. A memory crowded into his mind. A boy of eleven in a swimming pool clinging to the steel ladder at the side, out of breath and crying, the tears disguised by the water that dripped out of his wet hair. The boy felt scared. Alone. He felt as if the pool were an ocean that he must cross.” “The midday drive out to Santa Monica was long. Bosch had to take the long way, the 101 to the 405 and then down, because the 10 was still a week away fom being reopened (…) as he got out he could smell the sea…it was ten degrees cooler than it had been at his home…”