I can’t think of another place that is as much a part of my LA experience as The Mystery Bookstore. When I first moved down here in 1997 as a 24-year old, I went to my first book signing at the old location (Bill Eidson and Sparkle Hayter at dueling podiums). The next year, I had a signing of my own at the store—also my first. Stalwart bookseller Sheldon McArthur held a “World Series of Serial Killers” event which featured me and John Connelly (in person) and Thomas Harris (in absentia, on his island). Shelly sold well over a hundred copies of The Tower, in the process spoiling me for all future events. The Mystery Bookstore is one of the only stores still standing at which I’ve signed all ten of my thrillers. Going there and seeing those familiar faces—staff and loyal customers—is for me as much a part of the book launch experience as choosing a cover or signing the first new title page. Read more
This from an article I wrote last year – thought I’d repub it here in the tradition of holiday un-cheer.
Aside from the occasional Red Sox game which my father, transplanted from Boston to the Bay Area, allowed to grace our television, my sister and I weren’t allowed to watch “the Plug-In Drug” growing up. Perhaps because of this, she and I are book people. As in, Book People. We love the smell of books, the feel of them. We can’t travel without books or go to sleep without reading first. When we were younger, we brought books to camp and sleepovers. We brought them on car rides, to the beach, to doctor appointments. We’d go to library sales and buy used paperbacks for a quarter each, go home, and devour them like kids popping candy after a fruitful round of trick-or-treating. And then we organized and reorganized them endlessly—by color and size, alphabetically, by genre and series. (Yes, there is an OCD strain in ye olde gene pool). When we were well-behaved, we’d get to go to the book store (Walden, anyone?) where we’d run the aisles like berserking junkies.
As we grew older, we grew more concerned with the state of the books we bought. New hardcover: good. Putting book facedown to hold place: bad. Whispering sweet nothings to your books: good. Loaning them to book infidels who touch the pages with Cheeto-fuzzed fingers: bad.
So you can imagine my delight about five years back when I strolled into a used bookstore in Brentwood and came upon a mint-condition hardcover first-edition of The Black Echo. I already owned said book, but my sister did not. Christmukkah was coming up, and I’d yet to buy her a gift. With excitement, I checked the title page and there, lightly penciled (and erasable), was the price: 5-.
Now, Mr. Connelly’s Edgar-award-winning first novel, as many of you know, is worth quite a bit more than that. I snapped it up eagerly and went home to wrap it (taping the brown-paper bag closed at the top).
When my sister opened the book some weeks later, she regarded it with great delight. She thumbed through it. Sniffed the pages like a book pervert. And then she turned to the inside front cover and her face fell. Magic Markered in messy cursive was a note. DEAR JANE, HOPE YOU LIKE THIS BOOK. ITS [sic] ONE OF MY FAVERITES [sic]. LOVE, SANDY.
I don’t know how I’d missed it, but I knew one thing: I hated that dumb-ass Sandy.
To this day, when my sister and I give each other gifts or send emails, we sign them LOVE SANDY. It keeps us mindful of those finest of holiday traditions: holding on to resentments and making fun of others.
The prospect of writing a crime novel based in Los Angeles was so daunting that I had to live here three years before trying. If I was going to take on a city already explored by Chandler and Ellroy, Crais and Connelly, I wanted to make sure that I knew it. That I had some way to make this place live and breathe, to take readers beyond the fake tans and the Hollywood sign into the beating heart of a city where anything is possible.
Most everyone (except for the eleven people, including my wife, actually born here) come to L.A. looking for something. It’s an intriguing city, full of promise, but it’s also a place where dreams come to be strangled. A lot of bitterness and glamour, resentment and money—a rich, dark undercurrent to all that glitz. Which, of course, makes it a great place for crime.
I wrote five novels that took place in Los Angeles before I wrote what I consider an L.A. novel. The Crime Writer, my eighth, is an L.A. novel because it couldn’t take place anywhere else. It’s about crime and story and infamy, and it features a protagonist who finds himself in that hottest of all spotlights—the L.A. high-profile murder trial. And so it required a more intense grounding in the streets and alleys and personalities of this place.
There’s a convention, in fiction centered here, of the drive—whether real or imagined—through the city. When I hit a certain point in my first draft, I found it was time to write my own dirty noir love song to Los Angeles. The virtual tour of the city comes through the eyes of Drew Danner, my protagonist, as he sits on his back deck and takes stock of a town that has dismissed him as another lurid cautionary tale. After, he observes, “My cheeks were wet with the breeze and the swell of my heart for the lights below. Los Angeles. A mirage of a town that sprang up like a cold sweat on the backs of gold diggers and railroad workers, and took form when pirate film distributors, fleeing Edison’s patents, took a train and a gamble backed by East Coast muscle. Los Angeles, land of endless promise. And endless failure….L.A. of the high-octane sunset, the warm night air that leaves you drunk. L.A. of the prolonged adolescence, the slow-motion seduction, the ageless, replaceable blonde. L.A. where a porn star runs for governor and an action figure wins. L.A. where anything can happen at any time to some poor schmuck or lucky bastard. Where anything can happen to you. Where anything had happened to me.”
And that’s really it, isn’t it? That sense of possibility—good and bad.
In addition to the obvious—crime and punishment, Rodeo and Sunset—L.A. is a city of hidden textures, of many hues. People come here searching for, above all else, identity. No one here is a caterer or bartender—we are all rock stars and dancers, installation artists and cinematographers. Everyone is on the run from a past more ordinary than they’d like to admit, toward a dream they can never fully attain. This search for identity is something I literalize in my latest book, Trust No One. Nick Horrigan had his life taken away after his stepfather’s murder when he was seventeen. For reasons unclear to him, he was forced away from his family and on the run, and as the book opens, he’s returned to this city, to Los Angeles, to seek his identity. He is an ordinary guy, like you or me. Like so many Angelinos, he wants to know who exactly he is, what he’s running from, what he’s moving toward. And we meet him, on page one, on the worst night of his life. His world is about to explode in on him. He’s dragged from his bed to a waiting helicopter where he’s told that a terrorist has just seized control of a nuclear power plant—and will only talk to Nick. This confrontation will lead, of course, back to the events of Nick’s childhood—back to his identity. And there is no better place for this to unfold than against the backdrop of a city that lives to repackage faces and names and sell them the world over.
There’s the fun stuff, too, of course. The trends and fads, the day spas and conceptual dining experiences. My wife took me to a restaurant a while back without telling me what dinner would entail. I was stripped of my cell phone and led by a blind woman through several dense curtains into a pitch black room. We ate in perfect darkness, an experience that was supposed to (and did) heighten our sense of taste. But the entire time, I was thinking, What a great place for something awful to happen! A mysterious meet, a stranger who has information but doesn’t want his face known….As my mind wandered, one of the key chapters of Trust No One took shape. Perhaps that defines L.A. more than anything else: It’s difficult to concentrate here or chew your steak—there’s always a scene waiting to happen.
–Gregg Hurwitz, Los Angeles, 2009
This essay originally appeared in Mystery Readers Journal