I never planned to become a purveyor of LA Noir. Sure, there was an undertow in some of my unproduced scripts. But mostly, in my movies and first two published novels, I tended to seek more light than dark. That’s the writer I wanted to be. Mr. Popcorn.
Not that I didn’t love noir. I was and still am a huge consumer of crime. The War Department still remarks-slash-complains about the romantic reading material I chose to bring along for our Hawaiian honeymoon. Tom Harris’ Silence of the Lambs as well as Vince Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. Nor did I even ask her if she cared to share our balmy getaway with the likes of Hannibal Lecter and Charlie Manson. Those were the books I was into. They entertained me. Thus, they were not to be left out of my suitcase.
Meanwhile, I’m writing action comedies and the like for a day job.
Then one late afternoon I found myself in a Panorama City movie house. It wasn’t my first choice of theaters. Smack dab in the center of the Valley and in the shadow of a massive Budweiser bottling plant, the surrounding neighborhood can prove to be a bit dicey. Yet there was a convenience factor. My daughter’s dance school is nearby and I had a window to catch a flick I’d wanted to view before it was relegated to the aftermarket.
For the life of me, I still can’t remember the movie. But I sure as hell remember the experience.
For a four-thirty show, the auditorium was nearly empty save for myself and two other parties. One group appeared to be youngish couples on a double date. The other was a trio of dudes in their late teens looking to kill some time. I was the only Caucasian. All the other men were Hispanic, mostly tatted from their knuckles to their jawlines, all garbed in white T’s, below-the-knee black shorts, and immaculate sneakers. Gang bangers? Thugs? Most likely, I surmised. Generally speaking, at least in that particular zip code, posing could get you seriously thumped or something far worse.
Mind you, I wasn’t unnerved. I was, at most, simply aware of my surroundings. If anything, my relative ease was what set my mind into overdrive. Here I was, seated and ready for the movie to start, sharing an afternoon matinee with some whom I reckoned were criminals. Without conscience? I wouldn’t hazard a guess. I’d still have bet a delivery draft paycheck that, outside the theater, they were apt to engage in a variety illegal behavior.
Yet there we all were, gazing up at the screen as our chosen movie unspooled, laughing at the same jokes, thrilled by the action, moved by the characters’ struggles. During story lulls, I began to wonder what else we shared besides the air, the city streets, irritation at lousy drivers who refuse to signal before changing lanes on the 101 freeway. My instant guesses were too many to count from tastes in food to suffering the indignities of having to use a fouled public restroom.
It’s a big city, Los Angeles. Yet it’s not without small town moments like bumping into a neighbor or acquaintance while in line at the dry cleaners or meat section at a corner Ralph’s supermarket. I imagined the crimes I’d suffered during my years as a native Angeleno. No worse than cars broken into or stolen. Then there were close friends who’d suffered worse—robberies or assaults at the hands of wonton lawbreakers. I began to wonder how often had I been up close and personal with the same felons. I could’ve easily held the door open at 7-Eleven for one of them or them for me, either of us thanking the other. Or we might’ve brushed up against each other at City Walk and uttered polite excuse me’s. Or sat next to the other at a restaurant and kindly asked the other to pass the Heinz.
The more I pondered the more I recognized that the possibilities of up close and shared experiences between “enemies” were not only endless—but highly probable.
A story began to form that eventually became my third novel The Safety Expert, a tale about two men—one the victimizer and the other his victim—who both believed they’d finally moved on from their ugly pasts. Once they discover that the other is not only alive but thriving in their own suburban bubbles, they each become dangerously magnetized and unable to keep to their respective self-denial. The conflict that ensues is told from both their perspectives, rightly and wrongly, with an eye on exposing their dark similarities as much as their stark differences.
It was upon publication that, instead of moving onto another milieu, I found myself desperate to return to the same organically noir genre I’d stumbled into in that Panorama City movie theater. In fact, I felt I’d barely scratched the surface of this horizontal landscape that I live in, work in, love and hate, and where I’ve also chosen to raise my family.
As a screenwriter, my default switch has always been about what’s next. Changing things up. I’d write a thriller then rewrite a romantic action comedy. The shift in tone, I always felt, had a regenerative effect on me, invigorating my word-merchant juices into a new three-act overdrive. Yet after The Safety Expert, I felt drawn back to the shadowed universe of LA Noir. Which in itself is a bit of any oxymoron, yes? The sun. The glitz. The palm trees. The slick and shallow sheen which provides LA it’s prima donna sparkle.
You’re right. And maybe way ahead of me. What we see on the surface is just a veneer. Since that day in the movie theater, I began and still do challenge myself to—whether I’m sitting in Dodgers Stadium, walking the beach at Paradise Cove, or crossing the most benign downtown boulevard—imagine what primal dirt I could unearth if I just took the time to turn over a shovel or two of the parched earth.
99 PERCENT KILL is my third trip into LA Noir. And I’m already deep into the follow-up, REAPER, which will land on Kindles and bookshelves next spring. From a strictly literary perspective, I fully admit that I like living here and that I may never, ever leave.
And 99 Percent Kill is goooood noir. Great book, Doug. Looking forward to Reaper.
You hit upon a pretty scary nerve about humanity and what lies underneath.
The saying “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” is pretty insightful!
For the vast majority of average people we live these boring, predictable lives… but there are those amongst us who are truly bizarre… truly different and totally scary.
Like that quote, Herschel. Very much. Thanks.