Procrastinate Better

How Noir Was Born

From time to time, a Slate staffer or critic offers up a favorite cultural pick for Procrastinate Better readers. Today’s endorsement is from Slate senior writer Tim Noah.

I have a weakness for noir—the bracingly cynical black-and-white Hollywood movies of the 1940s and 1950s and the hardboiled fiction that flowered two decades earlier in pulp magazines like Black Mask and True Detective . Los Angeles is the noir capital of the U.S., and on a recent visit there I picked up A Bright and Guilty Place , Richard Rayner’s nonfiction account of the real-life political corruption that, he argues, strongly influenced the genre. I made my purchase at Book Soup , one of L.A.’s last remaining great independent bookstores, located on the pleasingly noir Sunset Strip.

A Bright and Guilty Place , which is newly out in paperback, focuses on the breathtakingly corrupt District Attorney’s office during the 1920s, and particularly on two men: “Debonair Dave” Clark, a charismatic young prosecutor, and Leslie White, an earnest and energetic young investigator. With the notable exception of White, nearly all the book’s reform-minded characters eventually go on the take, most of them to Charlie “The Gray Wolf” Crawford or to Guy McAfee , Crawford’s rival to control L.A.’s graft network (who would later decamp to the Nevada desert and help create Las Vegas). The starting point for Rayner’s narrative is when the seemingly sane and incorruptible Clark pulls out a Colt and plugs Crawford and Herbert Spencer, a journalist on Crawford’s payroll. But the story broadens out to cover various other scandals of the period. Among these are the water swindle made famous in the movie Chinatown ; the murder-suicide of Ned Doheny and his butler (Doheny was the son of Edward Doheny, the oil tycoon whose life story was fictionalized in There Will Be Blood ); and the embezzlement prosecution of Daisy DeVoe, special assistant to Clara Bow, the movie star and original “It” girl, which put DeVoe in jail but also destroyed Bow’s career by revealing lurid details of her sex life.

I was in Los Angeles to tour colleges with my son Will, ahigh school senior, and A Bright and Guilty Place ’s frequent referencesto USC lent some unexpected piquancy to our visit there. USC appears, in fact, to be the official college campus of L.A. noir. Half the characters in Rayner’s book went there, and its Italian Romanesque Doheney Memorial Library , built by Edward officially as a memorial to Ned, was (Rayner reports) a payoff to USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid for testifying on Edward’s behalf at the Teapot Dome trial. The evidence that Edward, Ned, and the butler had all conspired to bribe Interior Secretary Albert Fall was more than sufficient to put Fall behind bars. Even so, Edward was acquitted. As Jake Gittes would observe: That’s Chinatown.