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City of Fallen Angels

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 26, 2009

A BRIGHT AND GUILTY PLACE

Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age

By Richard Rayner

Doubleday. 267 pp. $25

In the early 1980s, just before Los Angeles put on its second Olympic Games, British journalist Richard Rayner came here and fell reluctantly, madly in love with this city. Los Angeles -- from which I write -- offered him a blithe nuttiness: earthquakes, civil unrest, mindless heat (Rayner once spied a hapless citizen trying to take shelter from the sun in the shade of a telephone pole) and especially, a panoply of truly grotesque and off-the-wall crime.

In "A Bright and Guilty Place," Rayner uses crime as a key to the secrets of this seductive metropolis, and the time frame he has chosen seems unnervingly appropriate for today: He begins with the last few euphoric years before the crash of 1929 and continues a few more years, into the depths of the Depression, by which time somber reality had knocked optimistic if corrupt L.A. off its shaky emotional pins.

To love this book you have to love the wonderful novels of Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy, where only the flimsiest veneer of freshness and glamour covers a decaying, even disgusting reality. If you can go along with that point of view, this social history will be a bonanza for you, a boundless source of creepy joy.

Rayner begins his narrative with the 1931 shooting death of Charlie Crawford, the "Gray Wolf," a middle-aged, utterly corrupt, churchgoing crime czar of the L.A. underworld. He's been running "The System" for years, a fairly orderly way of doing business in a city where everyone seemed to be paying off everybody for absolutely everything. Leslie White, a young detective in the Hall of Justice, wonders who could have committed this murder, only to find out, to his amazement, that the culprit appears to be Dave Clark, a well-dressed former assistant DA who is running for judge. How could this possibly be?

Flash back a few years. White has just finished covering the breaking of the St. Francis Dam in central California. William Mulholland, the man who famously stole water to turn the Los Angeles desert into an oasis, is responsible for the drowning of hundreds of people. White ends up with the unpalatable job of photographing the corpses. One of his lungs blows out from the stress. He moves to Los Angeles for his health and gets a job in forensics and whatever else turns up. In another part of the city, Clark, college football hero and World War I ace, finishes law school, marries a beautiful girl and buys a bright yellow roadster. Clark is going places. So, in his way, is White. One of them will live a long and happy life; the other one is doomed.

The place they call home is, in the 1920s, the fastest-growing city in the world. The movie business blooms and offers hope to a whole generation of beautiful but dimwitted Americans who have come west to make it in the movies. A peculiarly inscrutable phalanx of Midwesterners have been lured here by the relentless boosterism of real estate developers. They've come to L.A. for sun and a comparatively hedonistic, easy life. That's all any of these people want, but their visions of that life differ wildly. Added to this mix are crooks and miscreants of every kind, whose ideas of bliss run to extortion, sexual commerce, larceny and murder. All with a jaunty twist.

In 1929, Ned Doheny, son of E.L. Doheny, scandal-tarnished oil magnate, is murdered, along with his male secretary, in the family's unbelievably fabulous mansion, Greystone. Although White does his meticulous forensic work, the crime is almost immediately covered up. These murders may or may not be part and parcel of the Julian Petroleum debacle, an elaborate oil-wealth Ponzi scheme that robbed rich and poor alike and will lead to trials aplenty. And these crimes are just a fragment of what afflicts L.A. A gangster has opened up a gambling ship offshore. There are hundreds of brothels and hundreds of speak-easies, and somebody, somewhere, especially in the LAPD, is always on the take.

To balance out this roster of largely commercial crime, the author also chronicles the tribulations and tragic downfall of silent-film actress Clara Bow, who is blackmailed by someone whom she has come to think of as her closest girlfriend. The girlfriend is sent to jail, but Bow's career is ruined. She's judged harshly for her prodigious sexual generosity, pilloried by the press and puritanical Midwesterners. In the midst of all this frantic misbehavior, that clean-cut former assistant DA, Clark, goes on trial for the murder of L.A.'s underworld czar.

I am probably this book's perfect reader. Among the cast of characters in this complex and bristling narrative is Gene Coughlin, a top newspaper reporter of the time, mainly for the Illustrated Daily News; Matt Weinstock, that paper's city editor, shows up on Page 2; crime reporter Casey Shawhan on Page 98. They were all poker-playing buddies of my old Texan dad. My father knew he lived in a magic time, and I remember it -- in glimpses -- from when I was a little girl: our dining room turned into a poker parlor; handsome, raffish men and beautiful women; oh-so-cool banter; rivers of whiskey; clouds of cigarette smoke. These are the men who first reported on these magnificently awful shenanigans. They made history out of glitter and crime and the enchantment of ephemeral worlds. If you love the idea of all that, you'll really love "A Bright and Guilty Place."

See can be reached at http://www.carolynsee.com.

Sunday in Outlook

-- How to win a cosmic war.

-- How not to hype a scientific breakthrough.

-- The endless quest to build a better language.

-- The life and times of I.F. Stone.

-- And John Dillinger's wild ride.

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