NEW YORK (CBS) For most of us Los Angeles evokes Hollywood movie stars, sunny weather and a laid-back lifestyle but in the roaring twenties the city had a harder edge. A BRIGHT AND GUILTY PLACE: MURDER, CORRUPTION, AND L.A.'S SCANDALOUS COMING OF AGE reveals the true life story behind the Los Angeles of noir fiction greats like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
With a keen eye for observation and a penchant for detail, British ex-pat and longtime L.A. resident Richard Rayner follows the intertwined lives of two men: Leslie White, a young, idealistic photographer who goes to work as a crime scene investigator for the DA's office and Dave Clark, a dashingly handsome young prosecutor who ultimately cannot resist the City of Angels' darker pleasures.
Together the two men weave their way through some of L.A.'s most notorious scandals.
At the center of it all is crime boss Charlie Crawford and his disciple Guy McAfee, once called the Capone of L.A. But when both Crawford and newspaper man Herbert Spencer turn up dead and Dave Clark emerges as the prime suspect, both Clark and White's lives and the city itself will be forever changed.
Rayner paints a picture of an L.A. hollowed out by economic collapse, squeezed in the vice grip of organized crime and in the throes of an intense religious fervor that swept the land in tandem with the rising crime rates. Complete with cameos by the most notorious gangsters of the day, seedy movie starlets, morally bankrupt preachers and legendary tycoons, it's a tale that illustrates as never before the spectacular downfall of America's promised land.
Interview By Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What drew you to this subject?
Rayner: It's a long story, the story of my adult life almost. I was born in the north of England and was working as a journalist in London when I first came to Los Angeles. That was back in the 1980s. A magazine I worked for used to put me on a plane to come interview celebrities - Eddie Murphy, Grace Jones, and Jack Nicholson were among them. Through all that, in a roundabout way, I found a girlfriend (she was a Playboy bunny, believe it or not, but I was younger then and still had a few decaying English teeth in my head) and I kept coming back and back. I found L.A. exciting, thrilling – small wonder. The relationship with Bunny Michelle went south and I turned my general all-around naïve excitement about the place into a book, my first, 'Los Angeles With A Map,' which was later adapted into the least famous film ever to feature Johnny Depp. By then I was back living in L.A. with my wife (not the bunny), our kids were being born here (they're now 14 and 12) and I was doing reporting for the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. Much more hard-core stuff. I wrote about the Rodney King riots and various LAPD scandals and spent a lot of time with and around cops. I came to see Los Angeles very differently, as a much darker place than I'd at first supposed, and I began to wonder whether Los Angeles had some criminal DNA that was specific to itself. The attempt to answer that question drove me back in time, to the 1920s and 1930s, and the factual material that became 'A Bright and Guilty Place.'
Who are the central characters in your Los Angeles of the 1920s and '30s and why did you choose them?
Rayner: There are two. Leslie White and Dave Clark. Leslie White became, in 1928, a detective with the investigative unit of the L.A. County's District Attorney's office. He was a specialist in forensics, a science then in its infancy – he was sort of an early CSI guy. He worked on some of the big cases of the time, and later used his experiences to transform himself into a pulp fiction writer in the 1930s. Dave Clark was a young and handsome dude (he really looked like a movie star) who grew up in L.A., became a flyer in WWI, then graduated out of USC law, and, in 1926, joined the District Attorney's office as a prosecutor. Hence his connection with Leslie White. Dave Clark had some notable prosecutions but was himself put on trial for double-murder in 1931. He rubbed out the then head of the Los Angeles underworld, a fixer named Charlie Crawford. The story of how and why this happened is the backbone of 'A Bright and Guilty Place.' I see Clark as a Michael Corleone figure – an upright man who goes dark and rotten inside. It's a tragic story, ultimately. Clark was acquitted of double-murder (on self-defense), became a mob lawyer through the 1930s, and killed somebody else – the wife of a friend, with a shotgun, after a drunken argument – in the 1950s. Amazing stuff, and I love the way the destinies of these two characters intertwine.
What's the biggest surprise you uncovered?
Rayner:For me, there were a couple. First, how comparatively small Los Angeles was in the 1920s. The population grew from about 500,000 at the beginning of the decade to 1.2 million by the end of it. Real boom years. The second, is that L.A. was then an oil town. Oil, not yet entertainment, was still the biggest business. The writer Raymond Chandler was working in the oil business. L.A. then produced 20 percent of the world's oil. Go figure! That was starting to change, of course, but the story of oil, and the scandals it produced, and the accompanying growth of the movie business, feature prominently in 'A Bright and Guilty Place.'
Any book about Los Angeles seems bound to have a celebrity
plot-line. What's yours?
Rayner: It's Clara Bow. She was hot, red hot, the world's biggest movie star in 1929 to 1931, an unbridled sexual time bomb (think Lindsey Lohan multiplied about a hundred times) whose career was destroyed by a big law case. This is the thumbnail of what happened: Clara was already up to her neck in scandal when her secretary, a steely blonde chick named Daisy DeVoe, started blackmailing her; Clara wouldn't stand for it, brought DeVoe to court, and DeVoe spilled all the dirt. The studios then dropped Clara like a hot brick, perhaps suspecting, too, that she would never make the transition from silents to talkies. The DeVoe case was prosecuted by Dave Clark, only a few months before he committed the double-slaying. The discovery of the connectedness of these events in 1931 was when I realized I had the material for a book.
Is there a hero in your account of L.A. in that era or was life too complicated for that?
Rayner: Leslie White is the survivor-hero, a dweeby-looking little guy with horn-rimmed spectacles who nonetheless proves indomitable. He just keeps going, reinventing himself time after time, turning himself from a photographer, into a cop, then into a writer. Dave Clark is the tragic figure, of course.
How does today's Los Angeles compare with the city in your book?
Rayner: It's both very different and yet the same. Much bigger, of course. But patterns that were put in place in the 1920s and 1930s are still very much part of the city's tapestry. Take the obsession with showcase trials. It's as if Los Angeles needs these spectacles – O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, Phil Spector – in order to breathe and prosper. They're part of the city's identity, almost like movies, and this fascination dates back to the 1920s, when, as the historian Carey McWilliams said, Los Angeles had the best murders ever. There were tons of them, epic and juicy fodder for the tabloids.
What question should Crimesider have asked you that we didn't, and what's the answer?
Rayner: Maybe – 'do you intend ever to leave Los Angeles?' The answer would be – I wish! I moved here with my wife back in 1991, intending to stay for six months. Now 18 years have gone by. I feel bound up with the place somehow, both loving it and hating it, wanting to get away, and never quite managing it. The nature of that relationship is what makes 'A Bright and Guilty Place' feel like a very personal book for me, even though it's describing historical events from the city's long-ago past.
RICHARD RAYNER is the author of Drake's Fortune, The Cloud Sketcher, The Associates, and several other books. His writing appears in The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.