5 Books Set in Los Angeles that Inspired Sins as Scarlet
Nicolás Obregón explored Los Angeles's dusky underbelly for his new novel, Sins as Scarlet and offers up the five books that helped inspire him.
When I moved to Los Angeles two and a half years ago, it was with the (possibly naive) intention of capturing the city’s dusky underbelly for my next novel. In Sins As Scarlet, I wanted my Japanese-American detective, Inspector Iwata, to drift through the unvarnished tranches of L.A.—the industrial, the suburban, the impoverished—neighborhood kingdoms so often shunned by “mainstream” story-telling. What I found was a city as beguiling as it was inspiring. Yet the truth is, fictional versions of Los Angeles have been fascinating me for as long as I can remember.
Buttoning down a definitive list of books set in L.A. that have influenced me turned out to be a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. Ellroy, Connelly, Paula L. Woods, Dorothy B. Hughes, Megan Abbott, Walter Mosley, Joe Ide—as soon as I thought my list was complete, another glaring omission would pop up. In the end, to avoid this becoming a long and tedious roll call, I’ve tried to veer away from the usual suspects and focus on, perhaps, less obvious novels and how they impacted my own work.
Body Rides by Richard Laymon
Originally published in 1996, Body Rides depicts a dark and dangerous L.A., the police brutality and riots still thick in the air. I read this book at the age of 14 (the perfect age, some might argue). It is a lurid, macabre, and often prurient book, but at its heart, a compelling literary doohickey beats: after saving a beautiful woman’s life from an insane serial killer, the protagonist is rewarded with a golden snake bracelet which allows the wearer to “enter” another person and live their experiences. The “host” is unaware of the intrusion, while the “guest” cannot influence the host. Laymon’s violence is sometimes portrayed with orgiastic glee, while his signature smut is ever-present. But at this book’s core is a constantly compelling freedom—the protagonist can go anywhere and be anyone. Ultimately, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Richard Laymon. But beneath the rip-roaring narrative, it was the lonely, nefarious Los Angeles brooding that first captured my heart.
Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
As much as I’ve tried to avoid the obvious, I simply couldn’t omit Chandler. When he’s called to mind, people often point to his prose—he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food etc. It’s understandable, of course. Not for nothing do we have the word ‘Chandleresque’ today. But I think his wry wit can sometimes mask the real underlying quality of his writing and less conspicuous passages are overlooked. There’s a simple genius to gun barrels being likened to the mouth of 2nd Street Bridge, or the eyes of a woman compared to strange sins. Picking just one title is no easy task but, for me, when it comes to the mystery genre, Farewell, My Lovely is the classic of classics. If the planet were suddenly doomed tomorrow and time capsules were sent into space to preserve human culture, this book would get my vote for the one marked crime fiction. But I think what I really fell in love with were Chandler’s quieter, more reflective passages.
When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.
It was in blunt yet melancholic monographs of Los Angeles such as this that Chandler first inspired me.
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Latino culture is so vibrantly present in Los Angeles, a city once well within Mexican borders, that an entire life can be lived out in L.A. without a word of English. In Sins as Scarlet, Inspector Iwata’s quest drags him into a Northern Mexico riven by brutality. Mexico is often unfairly regarded through the lens of gang violence and El Chapo, despite being a vast and diverse country that boasts a luminous culture. And yet, the everyday realities of the narco wars are inarguable in the borderlands. Movies such as Sicario and the quietly and unflinchingly masterful Heli have explored these nightmarish worlds. But it is Juan Pablo Villalobos’s debut novella, Down the Rabbit Hole, that truly inspired me on this front. Clocking in at well under 100 pages, it is a claustrophobic, charming, and deeply moving account of Tochtli (Nahuatl for rabbit), the young son of a drug lord. A dictionary hound, his impressive-for-his-age vocabulary includes words such as devastating, and disastrous. And thus, early on when Tochtli describes his memory as “practically devastating” we laugh, while by the time he labels Mexico as “‘disastrous” we laugh bitterly. A voracious reader with a penchant for hats, Tochtli is irresistibly funny and completely isolated from the real world.
I know thirteen or fourteen people. If I counted dead people, I’d know more. Twenty, easily. But dead people don’t count, they’re corpses.
Despite his loneliness and exposure to the ultra-violence of the world outside lapping against the walls of his father’s mansion, he still dreams of samurai and visiting Liberia one day to see a pygmy hippopotamus (though his father already owns tigers). Spoiled, precocious and, ultimately, a victim, Tochtli weaves for us a blackly tragic fairytale that drips with realism. Of the many gifts that Villalobos bestows upon any writer who picks up this book, I think the most valuable is this: ask your reader as many questions as lessons you provide.
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
A non-fiction epic which explores the American murder epidemic wherein African-American males, who account for only 6% of the population, make up 40% of annual homicides. Written by an L.A. Times reporter who, in 2006, concluded her paper only covered 10% of homicides, Jill Leovy wrote Ghettoside as a response. Zeroing in on South Los Angeles, she explores a world of poverty and violence, neighborhoods suffused in grief, and a forensic dissection of a murder’s aftermath. Leovy talks of “homicide eyes”, the trance-like stupefaction which accompanies a sudden bereavement, the shock and savagery of loss laid bare. At times it is almost nauseatingly difficult to read, the rawness of the grief shocking, but ultimately this is a heartrending and necessary book. While I’m not in the non-fiction genre, I couldn’t help but be deeply influenced by Ghettoside, coming to understand that homicides always have more than one victim.
Streetwalkers by Scot Sothern
Brutal, bleak, often hard to look at, this book is a window into the desperate soul of unseen Los Angeles. In the 1980s, Scot Sothern embedded himself into the street prostitution scene of Skid Row and Hollywood, documenting his own experiences (often intimate). Streetwalkers is a deep-sea dive into late-night desperation, casting a chink of light on those whose daily existences revolve around crack pipes, alleyways, and beatings. Sothern photographs his subjects throughout Los Angeles (and Northern Mexico), many of them homeless and addicted to substances, most using street names: Sparkle, Bunny, and Rose.
She tells me her name is No One and don’t ask her any questions.
It’s a conflicting read, at times you feel it borders on exploitative—a sort of gonzo glee that enjoys the squalor. But the author is also vulnerable, honest, and self-aware throughout: “I don’t blame her for not feeling romantic, I’m not here to take her away from all this, I’m just a part of it.” Sothern never promises redemption or salvation, only a few bucks and his unflinching camera lens. Streetwalkers is laced with regret and steeped in a gentle empathy for its stars, people who never had much of a chance. This book is nothing less than a safari of ghosts, one that has stayed with me to this day. Sothern’s work grabs you by the collar and hisses into your ear—the discarded are not a tiny minority, here they are an army. And that’s what’s really stayed with me: just because they’re easy to ignore, doesn’t mean they’re not there.