Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: L.A. Noir

I finally finished reading L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin. I actually started reading this months ago, but it keeps getting back-burnered. So, heading into 2015, it was at the top of my reading list, mostly just because I knew I need to get through it.

Story: L.A. Noir is about the history of Los Angeles. It begins with how L.A. rose up as a settlement. We learn how, when, and by whom it was settled. We see the history of who controlled the city through two main camps: organized crime and the LAPD.

Now, I've been to LA before, just as a travelling tourist. I've spent almost no time in the city itself, keeping to more touristy places like Anaheim and less touristy places like Modesto (because I have family there). So my interest in this book wasn't necessarily for the city itself, but rather the history. We see a lot of the infamous Mickey Cohen, who I knew next to nothing about, and also a hard-core, straight-laced policeman named William Parker, who served the LAPD in many and various capacities over the year. I love juxtapositions like this. Cop vs. mobster, organized crime vs. law and order, criminal mentality vs absolute justice. In fact, most mobster stories--films, books, etc.--need this opposition or else they're just plain dull. And the fact that this is all real life history is even better!

Writing: While the subject matter was very interesting to me, the book itself, I'll admit, was a tad on the boring side. Perhaps it was just that it was a non-fiction, but I don't think so. Plenty of non-fics I've read are super easy to read. I think it's more that he used lots of names and titles, even for minor players in the story. Maybe that's just him being historically thorough, but it made for difficult reading. Also, he did tend to jump all over the place, from story to story, without using any obvious linear or consecutive narrative to tell the story. The other historian I've read who does this is Edvard Radzinsky, who writes Russian history. And there's nothing for it. That's just how these guys write. If you want the history, you gotta deal with it. Just saying it's not the easiest way to envision a timeline.

History: The history was obviously well-researched and I learned a ton about these people and this time period. He even had lots of interview quotes from the major players. (It probably helped that Cohen fancied himself a celebrity and was always more than happy to talk to the media.)

My Take-Away: I felt like I got a lot out of this book. Lots of history, and a clear picture of who these people, their personalities, and how they respectively fit together or (more often than not) clashed. There were several ridiculously interesting characters (usually the supporting players) that I just had to write down something about, and where to find them in the book so I could come back. Let's face it, truth can be stranger than fiction, and I don't think I could come up with such rich characters on my own. These character studies are priceless.

Dislikes: The only thing I could say I didn't like was something that didn't pop up until the end. As they got into the late '50s-early '60s time period, of course there was much talk of the civil rights movement. I didn't mind this in and of itself. In fact, with the large number of African Americans living in L.A. at the time, one could hardly talking about the city's history without mentioning it. My problem was that, at this point, I felt like the author took on an agenda, and I was bugged by it. For most of the book, he did a good job of simply presenting fact, as well as all viewpoints involved, without asserting his own opinions. Once the issue became race, his opinion was very front and center. 

I'm not saying I agreed nor disagreed with his opinion (okay, for the most part, disagreed) but more to the point, it was so in-your-face obvious, especially as compared to the rest of the book, that I felt it took away from the history. The book claims to cover the history of L.A. during the lifetimes of Mickey Cohen and William Parker, but there was an entire epilogue about the Rodney King riots of '91, which happened after both men had passed away. Not that those riots aren't important, and they are a big part of L.A.'s history, but they were beyond the scope of what the book claimed to cover. It felt very superfluous; an excuse for an extra, racially charged discussion that has little to do with the subject matter. Anyway, this painfully obvious agenda was about the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way about the entire book.

Overall: I really liked the book and was glad I finally got through it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in this time period, Mickey Cohen, the history of LA, or just mobster history in general. With the caveat that it's not the easiest read in the world. Despite what I've said above, it's not a terribly difficult read or anything, just not the easiest in the world. If you really want the history, it's definitely worth it!

Has anyone else read this book, or this author? What do you think of the history? Of the writing style?

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