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Category — Literature

Was Los Angeles ever like Las Vegas?

I enjoy reading mysteries, especially the classics (“Golden Age”).  I have no interest in police procedural novels.  Most of the time I’m not interested in hard-boiled detectives (e.g. Mickey Spillane).  I remember one time listening on XM radio to a old time radio detective show – it was filled with over the top metaphors and cliches.

But the best hard-boiled writers are good.  To be exact, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are good, and I’ve read most of their stories.  Recently, I bought Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder — and of course I read it immediately, and enjoyed it.  Those short stories are a nice change from the Marlowe novels.

But I don’t agree with his introductory essay on detective novels.  Chandler says the goal of fiction is realism — but it’s not: fiction exists to tell a story, whether sung by a bard, recited by a poet, printed in a novel, or shown on a movie screen.  Ideally, fiction should tell a story about interesting characters with style, and illuminate part of the fascinating world we live in, a world filled with all kinds of people (I strongly agree with Chandler that there is no such thing as a boring topic).

No fiction is realistic: Chandler and Hammett are not exceptions.  Hammett’s The Gutting of Couffignal is no more realistic than The Red House.  Chandler’s stories, set in Los Angeles, make Los Angeles sound like what I imagine Las Vegas was like in its gangster days.   If Chandler was realistic, his stories would’ve ended quickly, because his detective would’ve been shot and killed, or retired with multiple concussions, instead of persisting through many narrow escapes and thorough beatings.

And I don’t doubt that LA has had, and still has, many problems with gangsters, gangs, and murder, but I don’t think his stories ever matched the typical life of most inhabitants of Los Angeles.   Frankly, I suspect Las Vegas was never really like its gangster image for most people, either.

I could argue that for a murder novel, you need to talk about those who are likely to deal with murder, such as detectives, gangsters, and the police.  But I don’t believe most murder and violence were (or are) caused by gangsters.

And it’s definitely not realistic today.  Where I live, most murders aren’t gang related; none of them sound at at all like something from Chandler or Hammett.  There aren’t any gambling joints.  Frankly, Jane Austen is a lot more realistic — I know several people who sure act a lot of characters in her novels.

But realistic ficture isn’t what we want.  Heck, even look at “reality” TV — of course, it’s time compressed to only show the more interesting interactions, and the producers try to set the show up to generate conflict.   I know most of my life wouldn’t make for a interesting novel.

July 10, 2009   1 Comment