on June 23, 2009
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.
"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. What he was doing in that office, and why he shot the two men within are still not clear, but his firing the shots was never in question, although his attorneys used a claim of self-defense. Hollywood loved the stories of one kid gone wrong and one gone right; if Clark was the former, then the latter was Leslie White. From being a reporter, he became a mostly self-taught investigator at the prosecutor's office where he had been a colleague of Clark's. The crime and corruption ground down his optimism and he would eventually become a writer of pulp fiction, but his works were not nearly at the level of Chandler. He had to testify against Clark, and give his photographic evidence. "I was forced to forget how much I liked the man," he was to write later.
Rayner enjoys taking a wide look at not just the overall political corruption nor crimes he describes, but at broader connections. He thus has supporting appearances by Fatty Arbuckle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charlie Chaplin, with many others. The main murder case, although Clark's motives remain a mystery, is genuinely compelling, making the book a page-turner. The city of Los Angeles itself figures highly, almost as a character in the story, with fantastic corruption at all levels, involving police, lawmakers, preachers, tycoons, and journalists. Anyone who likes the books or films of _The Long Goodbye_, _The Big Sleep_ or _Farewell, My Lovely_ is going to find this terrain familiar, and all the more strange for not being imaginary.
on July 10, 2009
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.
on October 17, 2009
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.
on August 30, 2009
There was a lot to enjoy in this book. As an LA resident and history dork it's always great to get a glimpse into the early years that helped define this city. The author weaves together various different people, different eras and different story lines and tries to pull them all together under the umbrella of "noir" LA. The problem for me was that at times this made the book lose some of it's potential impact. Telling the intertwining stories of Leslie White and Dave Clark gave the book a great core to focus on and the perfect case study for delving into LA's long relationship with corruption. It's when it spins off from there that it gets a bit muddled. Granted these were interesting anecdotes, but it made the book feel like there should either have been more or less instead of the in between that it actually is. Still there was some fascinating stuff covered in the book and it was definitely worth the read.
on July 21, 2011
A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age
A Bright and Guilty Place
Greystone Mansion still stands in Beverly Hills, occasionally used as a location for movie filming. Built in 1926 for $3 million in 1920's dollars by oil magnate Edward L. Doheny as a gift for his son "Ned," it was there that Ned and his male secretary and purported lover died in a murder-suicide in 1929. That's one of the elements in Richard Rayner's "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and LA's Scandalous Coming of Age."
Photos of Los Angeles in the `20's show forests of oil derricks which followed the senior Doheny's discovery of oil in the tar pits of LA.
During the Roaring Twenties, LA grew at a frantic pace, fueled by oil money, movies, and prohibition. It was the fastest growing city in the world. New public and private buildings went up almost overnight - the impressive City Hall and the fortress-like Hall of Justice where much of the legal drama transpired. With the explosive population growth, the city desperately needed water, which Department of Water and Power Engineer William Mulholland provided when he allegedly stole water from farmers in the Owens Valley. When the St. Francis Dam collapsed, killing hundreds, Mulholland's career ended. With the Depression, displaced Midwestern farmers and `Okies" flooded the state in the misguided hopes of finding their fortune.
Rayner's book is populated by dozens of colorful characters: Charlie Crawford, "The Gray Fox," who had a hand in much of the city's underworld; Dave Clark, the former prosecutor charged with Crawford's murder; Albert Fall, the first Cabinet Secretary convicted of taking a bribe (from E.L. Doheny); the "it" Girl, Clara Bow, and The Reverend Robert ("Fighting Bob") Shuler (not the Chrystal Cathedral Robert Schuller), who used his radio station to thunder against the city's corruption and vice.
Rayner, an English journalist, has done his homework and does a good job capturing the feel of 20's and 30's Los Angeles, but the story jumps around and leaves the reader confused. I had to go back to the "Cast of Characters" at the beginning of the book to recall who was who.
on January 10, 2015
Back in the 20s and in Los Angeles, acting, booze, drugs, and sex were rampant, but undercover. Mr. Rayner's page-turning read about the beginning of Hollywood and the power of money and politics is a great book. As a fan of California history, the story of the rise of silent movies and the theater and movie making powerhouses has interested me. While I lived in Los Angeles, I learned more about the history of movies and found that Hollywood and Vine was not a gracious site.
It was fun to see Flip Wilson at a sushi restaurant, and my sister bowled next to Jack Klugman. But those celebrities were not the ones I admired. I was fond of reading about Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, William Desmond Taylor, Mae West, Mark Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Marion Davies,and other stars of early Jollywood.
Hark now back to the days of the murder, corruption, and scandal that was hidden, sometimes, and the corruption law enforcement system back in the day.
I encourage anyone with a vague interest in the growth of cinema in the USA to read this book. This could be something we, as college students, used to call ''an all nighter".
on September 24, 2013
This book was a big disappointment. The idea behind it is good, but a spot check to verify accuracy came up short. Specifically myths concerning Clara Bow and her wild and crazy orgies with football teams, sex with dogs and so on, all long since debunked, are treated in this account as irrefutable fact. If the "facts" in a history are unreliable, the book has no merit. Notwithstanding the rave reviews found here, this book in fact is unreliable as history and has no merit whatsoever. Not recommended.
on January 29, 2012
This is an excellent nonfiction look at crime in L.A. during the Twenties and Thirties. The city officials didn't just turn a blind eye to crime; they stuck out their filthy paws and expected kickbacks. The author picks the scab of crime and corruption in L.A. and shows the bloody pus underneath. It's a world of criminals and the crooked politicians (and even more crooked cops) who kept them there. The book centers on two men who are both involved in criminal investigation and/or prosecution and how the insane heat of crime and money attempts to destroy their lives.
We also meet some famous people (Clara Bow, Al Capone) and lots of little losers who would sell their souls for a Hollywood dollar...if they had souls to begin with. The author shows us how the film "Chinatown" gives us merely a watered-down (pun intended) version of how sleazy local politics were back then. It's worse than you think. Money equals power, which attracts the sleazy criminals, which sells newspapers. The bigger the fortune, the thicker the scum. If you know "There Will Be Blood," that story also applies. Everybody wants to be involved in the movie industry, especially if they can rake off big bucks under the table. Drugs, prostitution, oil, murder, blackmail, graft, perjury. It's so common that everyone just sort of winks and banks another filthy ten thou.
The author is in love with the crackling hard-boiled prose of the L.A. crime writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. Did these authors invent L.A. Noir? Or were they merely reporting it? The author's own prose is fantastic. Dazzlingly readable. "Writers don't really write what they know; they write what they can." Even the most peripheral character in a crime becomes a potential star. West's "Day of the Locust" may not be so fictionalized after all. The truth is usually worse than you imagine, and this excellent book proves it.
on September 4, 2009
If you like real trials with flamboyant lawyers and witnesses;police,prosecution and political corruption;and plenty of greed,graft,sex and murders....you will love this read.
A Bright and Guilty Place was Orson Welles' term for twenties and thirties L.A.Did you know L.A. supplied one-fifth of the World's oil then?Did you know the L.A. rackets and the "system" were so tough that Al Capone sniffed around L.A.for an expanded market and returned to Chicago the next day after a little "talk"?Did you know the "It" Girl,Clara Bow,slept with everyone including then USC football player John Wayne?
Richard Raynor's research is pure academic-his acknowlegements go on and on,but
he writes like Raymond Chandler(who is in the book from that era),not literally,
but with a pithy fun style that really keeps you eagerly turning pages...a great,juicy read.