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A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age Hardcover – June 23, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (June 23, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385509707
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385509701
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #623,374 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Book Description
A captivating chronicle of how the City of Angels lost its soul.

Los Angeles was the fastest growing city in the world, mad with oil fever, get-rich-quick schemes, celebrity scandals, and religious fervor. It was also rife with organized crime, with a mayor in the pocket of the syndicates and a DA taking bribes to throw trials. In A Bright and Guilty Place, Richard Rayner narrates the entwined lives of two men, Dave Clark and Leslie White, who were caught up in the crimes, murders, and swindles of the day. Over a few transformative years, as the boom times shaded into the Depression, the adventures of Clark and White would inspire pulp fiction and replace L.A.’s reckless optimism with a new cynicism. Together, theirs is the tale of how the city of sunshine got noir.

When A Bright and Guilty Place begins, Leslie White is a naïve young photographer who lands a job as a crime-scene investigator in the L.A. district attorney’s office. There he meets Dave Clark, a young, movie-star handsome lawyer and a rising star prosecutor with big ambitions. The cases they tried were some of the first "trials of the century," starring dark-hearted oil barons, sexually perverse starlets, and hookers with hearts of gold. Los Angeles was in the grip of organized crime, and White was dismayed to see that only the innocent paid while the powerful walked free. But Clark was entranced by L.A.’s dangerous lures and lived the high life, marrying a beautiful woman, wearing custom-made suits, yachting with the rich and powerful, and jaunting off to Mexico for gambling and girls. In a shocking twist, when Charlie Crawford, the Al Capone of L.A., was found dead, the chief suspect was none other than golden boy Dave Clark.

A Bright and Guilty Place is narrative nonfiction at its most gripping. Key to the tale are the story of the theft of water from the Owens River Valley that let L.A. grow; the Teapot Dome scandal that brought shame to President Harding; and the emergence of crime writers like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, who helped mythologize L.A. In Rayner’s hands, the ballad of Dave Clark is the story of the coming of age of a great American city.

Richard Rayner on A Bright and Guilty Place

I’ve written eight books now—both fiction and non-fiction—and in so far as my writing career has had a constant, it’s been California in general, and Los Angeles in particular. My first novel, Los Angeles Without a Map, published back in 1988, was about an English guy’s love affair with a Playboy bunny. It was later turned into the least-famous film ever to feature Johnny Depp. I’d grown up in the north of England and the material in that book came out of visits I’d made to the city as a journalist. Later, in 1991, I came to live in L.A. with the woman who became my wife (she’s wonderful, and not a Playboy bunny). We intended to stay for six months. Now 18 years have passed. Our kids were born in Santa Monica Hospital and we’re still here, stuck it sometimes seems, resident aliens in a city I now know intimately well and still don’t quite understand. Not in terms of its effect on me, anyway.

I reported on the Rodney King riots for the literary magazine Granta, on the Northridge earthquake for the U.K. Guardian, on various movie stars for the New Yorker, and on the LAPD for the New York Times magazine. Riding around town in the back of black and whites, I saw cops do brave and sometimes stupid things. A couple of murders happened smack in front of my eyes, and I came to see Los Angeles in a different way, as a place where the light and dark tones of life are always co-mingled, sometimes comically, sometimes tragically. This texture of feeling was always associated for me with the genre known as ‘noir’, crime stories that had their roots, I came to learn, not only in the fiction and film of the 1930s and 1940s (writers like Raymond Chandler, movies such as Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep—each of them particular to Southern California) but in the true crime stories that preceded them, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the golden era of American tabloid journalism.

So I started poking around, doing research about true crime in L.A. in the pre-WW2 era. This involved lots of interviews, lots of trips to the great research libraries at UCLA and USC and the photo archive of the main Los Angeles Public Library, the basement of which is like a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouse, filled with historical goodies.

Various stories and characters began to obsess me. One such story concerned Leslie White, a young photographer from Ventura County who came to Los Angeles after the St. Francis Dam disaster in 1928 and got a job as a forensics investigator (think early CSI) with the District Attorney’s office. White worked on many of the big cases of the era (including the infamous, and unsolved Doheny mansion murder/suicide) and came to see that the DA’s office was a part of the civic corruption it was supposed to be fighting; so he used his experiences and turned himself into a pulp fiction writer in the early 1930s, publishing in Black Mask and elsewhere. He knew, and influenced, Raymond Chandler.

Some tale. But not as good as that of David H. Clark (known as "Debonair Dave"), a heroic flyer in WW1 and graduate of USC law who also went to work for the DA’s office, but as a prosecutor. Clark nailed mobsters and argued the case that wrecked the career of Clara Bow (then the world’s biggest movie star). Clark had a beautiful wife and an actor’s glamour. Then he himself, in 1931, was put on trial for murder, accused of rubbing out one Charlie Crawford, the then head of the Los Angeles underworld. Only in L.A.!

The Clark case was as sensational, and as headline-grabbing, in its day, as that which, sixty years later, featured O.J. Simpson. And when I discovered that Leslie White had known Dave Clark, and had indeed been called upon to testify against his friend, I realized I might have the spine of a fascinating book. Why had Clark—seemingly a beacon of rectitude—been sucked to the dark side? His story reminded me of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, except, of course, it was true.

At the heart of A Bright and Guilty Place, then, are the intertwined destinies of these two men, White and Clark, one a success in his own quirky way, the other propelled towards self-destruction and tragedy. I believe, too, that the book gives a portrait of a city in tumult, in the agonising throes—as the boom years of the 1920s turn to the Great Depression—of discovering an identity that will always be bound up with the types of mood and crime that A Bright and Guilty Place evokes. Los Angeles isn’t just dark, or light—it’s always both at the same time. —Richard Rayner

(Photo © Robert Yager)

From Publishers Weekly

In his unfocused history of crime-ridden Los Angeles in the 1920s, nonfiction writer and novelist Rayner (The Associates) touches on too many scandals—and scandalous characters—to make his account coherent. Leslie White, the young and idealistic DA's investigator (and, later, pulp fiction writer) seems like the only honest man in town, especially compared with the likes of promising prosecutor-turned-murder-suspect Dave Clark. Before the Depression hit, L.A. was swimming in wealth, not only from the burgeoning Hollywood studios but also from the oil boom. White saw firsthand how deep the city's corruption ran, from organized crime boss Charlie Crawford's System, whose tentacles reached the highest echelons of politics and law enforcement, to the press, always ravenous for another sensational story, a circulation-boosting crusade. Crawford's brutal murder in 1931 and star prosecutor Clark's emergence as the prime suspect is only one of the tales Rayner touches on in his chaotic chronicle of the city. Despite cameos by familiar faces—including noir master Raymond Chandler—readers may be overwhelmed by the onslaught of details, intriguing as they might be. (June 23)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

I definitely recommend this book for those interested in the history of Los Angeles.
Ryan J. Cummins
Like all great historians Rayner takes enough liberties to make you feel like you're there as the story he's telling is unfolding.
Jon Gerloff
As an LA resident and history dork it's always great to get a glimpse into the early years that helped define this city.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Dave Smith on June 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
For those who've not yet discovered Richard Rayner, he is the author of an unflinchingly honest memoir of youthful bad behavior and obsessive book thievery (`The Blue Suit'), one of the most amusing "first encounters with L.A." novels (`L.A. Without A Map'), a spot-on L.A./Vegas noir (`The Devil's Wind') and one of the great romantic novels (`The Cloud Sketcher') of the last decade which manages to combine the Finnish Civil War, the Roaring 20s, and mad skyscraper-love, paying tribute to the best aspects of both the film and the novel of Rand's `The Fountainhead.' Up to that point Rayner was only just revving his engine: the next three books, each better than the last, are a triumvirate of well-told tales that tread the same path as the popular histories of Simon Winchester, Erik Larson, and the legendary David Halberstam. The first of these was `Drake's Fortune' the story of a particularly American con game too big, brassy and bold to be true - but of course it was; the second, last year's `The Associates' a brief yet toothsome account of the rise of California's `Big Four' railroad barons during the Gilded Age; and now Rayner's best book to date, the aptly titled `A Bright and Guilty Place,' a dizzying tour of Los Angeles in the 20s, starring an Ellroyesque cast of gang lords, cops, entrepreneurs, writers, whores, city officials, and movie stars hip-deep in booze, betrayal, and murder. I live in Los Angeles, teach U.S. history, and have read McWilliams, Davis, Starr, not to mention all of the fictioneers that have painted such vivid portraits of the City of Angels, yet, in the words of the late, great Spalding Gray, I had to "leave it to a Brit to tell me about my own history." This is a perfect summer read; Rayner has knocked another fast pitch out of the park.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"Noir is more than just a slice of cinema history; it's a counter-tradition, the dark lens through which the booster myths came to be viewed, a disillusion that shadows even the best of times, an alienation that assails the senses like the harsh glitter of mica in the sidewalk on a pitiless Santa Ana day." That's a noir-ish description of the noir tradition of Los Angeles, written by Richard Rayner in _A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age_ (Doubleday). The descriptions of crime in old Los Angeles are familiar to all of us because of the books of writers like Raymond Chandler and the movies made from them, but Chandler was not writing in a vacuum. He had come back to L.A. in 1919 after fighting in France, and went to work in the oil business that was booming in the area. He learned cynicism from business, and saw the city's corruption, and thus came his novels. He was well acquainted with the many true crimes that Rayner covers, and through Rayner's book we get to see the city as Chandler saw it.

There is lots of skullduggery covered in these pages, but it focuses on 1931 when Charlie Crawford was shot to death. He was a devout churchgoer who was utterly corrupt, and he oversaw all the crime within the L.A. underworld. He was shot in his protected office, and it was a complete surprise that the shooter was Dave Clark. He was a fighter pilot and war hero, a champion golfer, a smooth dresser with movie-star good looks, and with a beautiful wife who adored him. He was an L. A. native who had become an ambitious lawyer and city prosecutor, and was running for judge. He had, unfortunately, been too eager to make his advancements happen, and was involved in the sort of rackets that Crawford oversaw.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By John Taylor Akerblom on July 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I struggle while reading history books. It often causes unpleasant flashbacks to homework and research sessions. "A Bright and Guilty Place" succeeds in capturing the feel of Los Angeles and the wild personalities that inhabited it during its development without ever being dry or boring. The setting is so artfully described and the characters so richly portrayed that I was transported to the seedy underbelly of LA in its adolescence. I had just as much fun reading about the setting and background for the plot as I did the actually story.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Charles Lewis on October 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I should start by saying this is not a bad book per se, and if your interested in early 20th Century seediness, you'll find it here. The trouble with Rayner's account of an almost forgotten murder in 1930s Los Angeles, is that it tries to stretch this account into something bigger. The hero here is Leslie White, a photographer, lawman, Roaring 20's CSI who just happens to be in the right place at the right time to be witness to a number of historical highlights; the San Francisquito Dam disaster, the Doheny Murder/Suicide, etc. He rubs shoulders with LAs good and bad, but this is not enough for a driving, motivated story. The climax, of sorts, here is the murder of Charlie Crawford, at the hands of former prosecutor Dave Clark, but really very little of the book is dedicated to this story point. The author spends as much time providing a biography of Raymond Chandler ("The Big Sleep") as a subplot, as he does in following the main players, White, Clark and Crawford. Still, the reader, especially the Los Angeles native/resident, will find some interesting history here, even if that history is pretty mean.
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