An overview of organized crime in Los Angeles from the Roaring 20s to the laid-back ‘70s, L.A. Noir: The Struggle For The Soul Of America’s Most Seductive City by John Buntin is a quick read, filled with interesting anecdotes and characters, but ultimately it may leave many readers wanting more.
Any book trying to tell a multi-decade story about a subject as complex as crime in one of the country’s largest cities is either going to be as big as a phone book or it will skim over a lot of details. I wasn’t looking for an in-depth analysis and the prose is both colorful and readable, giving the reader a good sense of the various time periods.
The pace moves quickly, beginning with Prohibition and ending with an epilogue during the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s, Mr. Buntin uses the stories of two men on opposite sides of the law as guideposts for the narrative.
William Parker was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department for 39 years, and has been called the greatest and most controversial chief in LAPD history. Parker was definitely an alcoholic and possibly a racist (if not by commission, certainly by omission). He learned all the tricks of political infighting and used loopholes in L.A.’s City Charter, some of which he put into place, to maintain his own position of power. A man who saw conspiracies (Communist, Mafia or Black Muslim) around every corner, Parker viscously attacked anyone who suggested his police department was ineffective or could be improved.
On the other side of the fence was Mickey Cohen, a locally born gangster and amateur boxer who also spent time in Chicago, New York and Cleveland. An associate of Bugsy Siegel and friend of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, Cohen was an unrepentant killer and inarticulate hothead who later in life remade himself and became a media darling and foe of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Cohen was also an obsessive-compulsive who took hours-long showers and changed clothes several times a day.
Along with Kennedy and Sinatra, other big names make appearances, and Mr. Buntin does a good job detailing the beginning of the Watts riots in the mid-60s, but curiously enough other famous events go unmentioned, particularly the “Onion Field” killings in 1963 and the Manson family murders in 1969. True, other books have examined these events in much greater detail, but given both occurred in the timeline of the story and had bearing on other themes addressed (Onion Field killings resulted in a change in police tactics and Manson wanted his killings to spark the race conflict he felt was simmering in L.A.), I would have expected at least a mention.
Bottom line, if you’re interested in the subject, this is a great opening read. Lots of interesting stories that introduce the key people and themes readers who want to learn more can use to pursue in-depth histories.