One of the many paradoxes of ageing is that the past seems ever more recent the older you get. When I was born, at the dawn of the 1960s, the Second World War seemed to have happened a long, long time before. Now I realise that it ended just 16 years before my birth, and 16 years no longer looks like any great span of time. The same is true of the events described in Richard Rayner's fascinating, flawed history of crime in Los Angeles in the first decades of the last century. The stories he tells are of pyramid schemes, ecological disasters, political and police corruption, greed and murder - the raw material for the novels of Raymond Chandler et al.
Reading about them now, they no longer seem to be part of some far-removed film noir history; but all too contemporary. Los Angeles has been the persistent theme of Rayner's restless writing career: 20 years ago his first book, the slyly comic Los Angeles Without a Map, purported to be the autobiographical story of an English journalist falling in love with Tinseltown. Since then he has become a resident of the city and used it as the setting for neo-noir novels like The Devil's Wind and Murder Book.
Now, possessed not only of a map but a reader's ticket to the city archives, he has written a sideways history of his adopted home. Rayner's fascination with LA began with reading Raymond Chandler, and here he seeks to demonstrate the extent to which Chandler and his fellow crime writers were simply reporting what they saw around them. The book is framed as the story of two men, the lawyer Dave Clark and a detective-turned-writer Leslie White. Their destinies intertwined when, in 1931, Clark was arrested for the murder of the man commonly believed to be the city's crime kingpin, Charlie Crawford, and White testified for the prosecution.
Frustratingly, this tale never really takes off as it becomes clear that Clark and White are really no more than supporting characters awkwardly raised to the roles of leading men. The climactic trial sequence, in particular, is something of a damp squib.
The book is much better when Rayner simply concentrates on telling the extraordinary stories of Los Angeles' early years. These are wonderfully lurid, full of killer cops and deadly dames – for instance, the story of the Mulholland Dam, which provided the inspiration for Chinatown, or the murder of Ned Doheny, which inspired Chandler's The High Window. This is where the book's true appeal lies: anyone who has ever loved Chandler will want to absorb this book and then go back and read him again, grateful for Rayner's insights and impressive research.
John Williams's books include 'The Cardiff Triolgy' (Bloomsbury)Reuse content