The Draw of Los Angeles for Crime Fiction Writers

Image of downtown Los AngelesA friend asked me yesterday why I chose Los Angeles as the setting for Come What May, the novel I’m currently writing. “Why not Dallas,” she asked.

Frankly I sort of side-stepped the question by replying with something along the lines that I felt readers would find the story more interesting set in Los Angeles than in Dallas.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t asked a good question but more that I had hadn’t really thought about my decision enough to come up with a more intelligent answer.

One of the great pillars of wisdom when it comes to writing is “Write what you know.” So why use a city you’ve never lived in or even visited more than a few times as a setting for your novel? Doesn’t it make more sense to use a city you have more personal knowledge of?

I do believe I can be very effective using your own city as a novel setting. Robert B. Parker has long been one of my favorite crime fiction authors. I’ve read all 40 of his Spenser novels and Parker’s writing definitely has been a big influence on my own.

One of the things I really liked about the Spenser novels was that they were all principally set in Boston, a city that Parker was intimately familiar with as was very evident in his writing.

Admittedly, I did choose Los Angeles as the setting for my book without really giving it a lot of thought. After thinking about my friend’s question I think a part of my decision was motivated simply by the fact that ever since the days of Raymond Chandler, Los Angeles has featured prominently in crime fiction with countless numbers of crime novels set there.

That of course begs the question, why? Is there something about Los Angeles that causes the city to come to mind for those writing tales of murder and mayhem? Do Americans consider Los Angeles to be a particularly dangerous, crime-ridden place perhaps due to much-publicized crimes like the mysterious 1947 Elizabeth Short (The Black Dahlia) murder, the Manson murders, and the O.J. Simpson murder case?

Factually, Los Angeles does have significant crime but that isn’t surprising for a city with 3.8 million inhabitants. But the truth is Los Angeles isn’t really as dangerous a place as many people might think. In 2010 for example, the total number of murders in Los Angeles dropped below 300, the fewest number of homicides since 1967 when the United States was at war with Vietnam and when Elvis married Priscilla. The number of 297 murder victims was still a significant number of corpses of course, but keep in mind the population of the city in 2010 was almost 4 million people.

Breaking that number down a bit, the total number of 2010 Los Angeles murders translates into about 7.8 homicides per 100,000 residents. That number actually compared quite favorably with the numbers of major American cities with some of the lowest homicide rates in the country.

In fact, the 2010 murder rate in Los Angeles was lower than that of Dallas for the same year. In 2010 there were 148 homicides in Dallas which was actually a 43-year low. The population of Dallas in 2010 was roughly 1.2 million which works out to a homicide rate of about 12.3 per 100,000 residents, higher than that of Los Angeles which is something many people wouldn’t have guessed.

Regardless of what some people may think, Los Angeles is statistically no more crime-ridden than other major U.S. cities and it can be argued, a safer city than many. So at least in my view that doesn’t explain why so many authors use Los Angeles as the setting for their crime fiction novels. The explanation I think is found more in myth than reality.

Los Angeles simply has so much to offer a crime writer. There is the vast and varied landscape to use as backdrops. There is the Pacific Ocean, palm trees, film industry, mountains and hills, and the desert. There is the continued draw of Hollywood for the imagination. There is the L.A.P.D., the famous police department immortalized by popular television series like Dragnet and Adam 12, not to mention its thousands of unsolved cases for writers to draw inspiration from. Los Angeles is simply a fascinating city revered as much for its shady underbelly every bit as present today as in Chandler’s time as for its glitter and glamor.

Not to say that a compelling crime novel couldn’t be set in a city like Dallas, but in my opinion the imaginations of crime fiction enthusiasts are simply more readily stirred by a tale set in Los Angeles with its seductive blur of artifice and reality.

At the end of it, I think that explains why I chose Los Angeles as the setting for the Malone novels. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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My Approach to Writing a Detective Novel

Image of Raymond Chandler
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Most contemporary authors I expect are influenced by writers of the past. Without a doubt, the author I have been most influenced by is the legendary crime novelist Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), known for his influential detective novels like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.

Chandler didn’t invent the detective novel but arguably he certainly transformed hard-boiled detective fiction. Even though he wrote only seven novels in his lifetime, Chandler is perhaps second only to Dashiell Hammett as the most important writer in the genre. I think a 1945 article published in The Atlantic magazine says it best. “To the writing of his detective stories Raymond Chandler brings the experience and the skepticism of a newspaper reporter, the narrative gifts of a born storyteller, and a mastery of pungent American dialogue.”

To influence means to have an important effect on someone or something. If someone influences someone else, they are changing a person or thing in an indirect but important way. That is what I speak of when I say that Chandler influences me as a writer.

That doesn’t mean of course that I strive to copy his writing style. I’m working on establishing my own. In addition Chandler lived in a different era. If you read a Chandler novel today you will find the language quite dated because our language is in a constant state of change. Words and manners of speaking popular in Chandler’s day are out of fashion and antiquated by modern standards of usage. But I do try to emulate Chandler’s philosophies in writing crime fiction. Chandler made that very easy to do by leaving behind his ten commandments for writing a detective novel:

1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.

4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.

9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

10. It must be honest with the reader.

(Source: “Raymond Chandler.” Open Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2015)

I realize that readers have limited dollars to spend on books as well as limited time in which to read. Understandably book buyers want assurance that a book they are considering purchasing is a quality book worth their hard-earned money and time. Obviously a new or unknown author in this genre has no reputation and thus little credibility with those who enjoy crime fiction novels.

I feel one of the best ways to build credibility with potential readers is give them some insight into my philosophies and approach to writing. If you enjoy a good detective novel and decide to give me a chance by reading Come What May, you can be sure I have kept Chandler’s ten commandments firmly in my mind while writing it. My goal is that those who read it will consider it both money and time well spent.