Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book: L.A. ’56, by Joel Engel (2012)

Joel Engel calls the tale in this book the “best true story I ever heard,” and it’s easy to understand why. It has big issues (racism, institutional corruption), sensational crimes, unlikely romance, and a whale of a finish. Not to mention characters galore. There’s the villain Willie Fields, a stranger to Los Angeles who prowls lovers’ lanes with a gun and a bogus badge, preying on women. The wrong man Todd Roark, a black former cop with no friends left on the force because of a scandalous interracial relationship. And a genuine hero in Danny Galindo, one of the few Mexican-Americans then on the LAPD, whose career spans the Black Dahlia case to the Tate/LaBianca murders. Galindo’s the only man who believes in Roark’s innocence, and he’s going to have to prove it all by himself.

Engel brings tabloid brio to this Southland saga; L.A.’s history is “written in asphalt” with streets named after movers and shakers, “which means the whole city is either a con or a crime scene.” He nails how show business is woven into the fabric of L.A. life. Galindo regularly sells his exploits to Jack Webb for Dragnet, his surname becoming a running gag on the show. It’s unclear how speculative the sections told from Fields’ point of view are – particularly when, as one figure describes him, he was cursed with stupidity, “the real rare kind that’s stupid through and through and doesn’t know how stupid it is” – but in Engel’s hands he’s a deeply disturbing figure, thinking of each woman he attacks as “that night’s girlfriend,” grateful for his attentions. Engel punctuates his chapters with articles from the California Eagle, Los Angeles’ primary African-American newspaper, spotlighting stories that weren’t covered by any of the city’s white periodicals in the summer of 1956. Hard-hitting and packing surprises to the final pages, you won’t find a better snapshot of life in the City of Angels sixty years ago.