18 June 2012

LA noir

The late Douglas Anne Munson (who wrote under the pseudonym Mercedes Lambert) worked the mean streets of Los Angeles much like her literary predecessor Raymond Chandler. Her heroine, Whitney Logan, does not have Philip Marlowe's wise-cracking self-assurance, and she's an attorney, not an investigator. But in the great pulp tradition of amateur sleuths she nonetheless gets involved in solving mysteries, and much mayhem occurs along the way. Dogtown, and its sequel, Soultown, are both set in the aftermath of the 1992 riots and have been re-issued as a double by Stark House. I recently enjoyed both. One of my favorites, Ken Bruen, wrote the introduction. Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller get much of the credit for re-imagining the crime and detective novel with female protagonists. They weren't the first--Agatha Christie, for one, pre-dates them all--and there were occasional heroines in the early pulps. But noir, historically, is a man's world, unless you're a femme fatale or a victim. Fortunately douchebags like Norman Mailer are no longer around to say stupid shit like "you have to have balls to write" (he was the president of PEN for a while, believe it or not). He meant that literally, not figuratively, and clearly had never read anything written by females. Ms. Lambert surely has the necessary chops. Here are samples of her literary cojones:
This is a town of pathological liars. Everyone is making a deal.The boulevard is paved with stars and percentage points. Box Office Boffo. Even my gynecologist has Variety in her office.
. . . 
The palm trees wept in the moonlight. There were no new jobs. No new schools had been built. I am a member of the National Lawyers Guild. I had believed in equality, fraternity, and the Bill of Rights. What had the Rebellion changed? Now the city was a burned-out Stonehenge of bricks and asbestos.
Whitney Logan is an insecure loner and a recent law school grad still clinging to her liberal ideals who barely manages to pay the bills working the bottom of the legal food chain. She pumps iron, studies tae kwon do, and keeps a bottle of Southern Comfort in her desk. Her landlord is a former big shot lawyer now a hopeless pothead ("Harvey Kaplan looked like he'd been dead for twenty years. At least since Woodstock."), her father an alcoholic, and her reluctant sidekick a hostile, foul-mouthed ex-hooker. All the right ingredients for noir. Lambert's writing is crisp and engaging, both funny and somber, and the adventures are gritty and evoke the bizarre, shifting landscape that is the City of Angels. It is unfortunate that cancer took her at age 55, just before her work enjoyed a renaissance.