Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: L. A. Noir by John Buntin

L. A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin tells the story of politics, policing, and crime in America's second largest city over the course of the twentieth century. Buntin tells his story through two characters: Mickey Cohen, infamous crime boss, and William Parker, long-serving Chief of Police. Both men's tenures reveal how Los Angeles changed and evolved over the course of the twentieth century. Both arrived and upset the existing balance, brought changes to their world, and ultimately outlived their value.

L. A. Noir is a great deal about the evolution of the city of Los Angeles. LA was a boom town. In 1880 the population was just over 10000 in LA county, twenty years later there was a ten-fold increase in population. By 1920 there were nearly 600000 people in LA county, and over a million a decade later. LA was controlled by a small number of powerful businessmen and politicians. These boosters trumpeted LA as "the white spot of America", a boast that stood in stark reality to the diverse population.

Like other boomtowns of the era, such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles struggled to deal with its growth and attracted the attention of the mob and hucksters. Los Angeles was seen as the next great opportunity for the American mafia. Buntin details the fascinating history of the development of organized crime in Los Angeles. One of the fascinating parts was the way in which the political system grew up in parallel. Corruption within city hall and the LAPD seems endemic.

William Parker was an ambitious, difficult man who in many ways is the father of the modern LAPD. His tactics were rough but at a critical junction he helped root out the political corruption poisoning the police department. However, Parker failed to adjust to the times. His strong-arm tactics and tin ear on race have left a sour note on his ultimately legacy.

Mickey Cohen strikes a much more tragic figure. As a young man he saw crime as a way to get what he always wanted. He cruel, aggressive style worked well in his younger days. It's important not to romanticize him as he was a brutal man. However, the reader cannot help but feel that Cohen is somewhat a pathetic figure by the end.

I am fascinated by the noir genre. In my head that genre really doesn't extend past World War II, but in so many ways the dirty policing, crime and corruption that so defines that genre is far less in the past than one might assume. The book also gives considerable insight into the issues within policing and organized crime. Many of the criticisms leveled against police today have their origins in the time period discussed. Parker and reformers worked for decades to bring about change, but even then a back-slide was always possible.

I would highly recommend this book for those interested in police history, the history of Los Angeles and the noir genre.

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