L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City

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Other cities have histories. Los Angeles has legends.

Midcentury Los Angeles. A city sold to the world as "the white spot of America," a land of sunshine and orange groves, wholesome Midwestern values and Hollywood stars, protected by the world’s most famous police force, the Dragnet-era LAPD. Behind this public image lies a hidden world of "pleasure girls" and crooked cops, ruthless newspaper tycoons, corrupt politicians, and East Coast gangsters on the make. Into this underworld came two men–one L.A.’s most notorious gangster, the other its most famous police chief–each prepared to battle the other for the soul of the city.

Former street thug turned featherweight boxer Mickey Cohen left the ring for the rackets, first as mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel’s enforcer, then as his protégé. A fastidious dresser and unrepentant killer, the diminutive Cohen was Hollywood’s favorite gangster–and L.A.’s preeminent underworld boss. Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, and Sammy Davis Jr. palled around with him; TV journalist Mike Wallace wanted his stories; evangelist Billy Graham sought his soul.

William H. Parker was the proud son of a pioneering law-enforcement family from the fabled frontier town of Deadwood. As a rookie patrolman in the Roaring Twenties, he discovered that L.A. was ruled by a shadowy "Combination"–a triumvirate of tycoons, politicians, and underworld figures where alliances were shifting, loyalties uncertain, and politics were practiced with shotguns and dynamite. Parker’s life mission became to topple it–and to create a police force that would never answer to elected officials again.

These two men, one morally unflinching, the other unflinchingly immoral, would soon come head-to-head in a struggle to control the city–a struggle that echoes unforgettably through the fiction of Raymond Chandler and movies such as The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and L.A. Confidential.

For more than three decades, from Prohibition through the Watts Riots, the battle between the underworld and the police played out amid the nightclubs of the Sunset Strip and the mansions of Beverly Hills, from the gritty streets of Boyle Heights to the manicured lawns of Brentwood, intersecting in the process with the agendas and ambitions of J. Edgar Hoover, Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. The outcome of this decades-long entanglement shaped modern American policing–for better and for worse–and helped create the Los Angeles we know today.

A fascinating examination of Los Angeles’s underbelly, the Mob, and America’s most admired–and reviled–police department, L.A. Noir is an enlightening, entertaining, and richly detailed narrative about the city originally known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Se–ora la Reina de los Angeles, "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels."
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About the author

JOHN BUNTIN is a staff writer at Governing magazine, where he covers crime and urban affairs. A native of Mississippi, Buntin graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and has worked as a case writer for Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. A former resident of Southern California, he now lives in Washington, D.C., with his family.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Broadway Books
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Published on
Aug 25, 2009
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Pages
432
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ISBN
9780307459855
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / State & Local / West (AK, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NV, UT, WY)
Social Science / Criminology
True Crime / Organized Crime
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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"Read this man's book." --James Ellroy

A harrowing, edge-of-your-seat narrative of murder and secrets, revenge and heroism in the City of Angels—the real events behind the blockbuster Warner Brothers film starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

GANGSTER SQUAD chronicles the true story of the secretive police unit that waged an anything-goes war to drive Mickey Cohen and other hoodlums from Los Angeles after WWII. In 1946, the LAPD launched the Gangster Squad with eight men who met covertly on street corners and slept with Tommy guns under their beds. But for two cops, all that mattered was nailing the strutting gangster Mickey Cohen. Sgt. Jack O'Mara was a square-jawed church usher, Sgt. Jerry Wooters a cynical maverick. About all they had in common was their obsession. So O'Mara set a trap to prove Mickey was a killer. And Wooters formed an alliance with Mickey's budding rival, Jack "The Enforcer" Whalen. Two cops -- two hoodlums. Their fates collided in the closing days of the 1950s, when late one night "The Enforcer" confronted Mickey and his crew. The aftermath would shake both LA's mob and police department, and signal the end of a defining era in the city's history.

Warner Brothers developed the film Gangster Squad based on the research award-winning journalist Paul Lieberman conducted for this book, which reveals the unbelievable true stories behind the film. He spent more than a decade tracking down and interviewing surviving members of the real police unit as well as families and associates of the mobsters they pursued. Gangster Squad is a tour-de-force narrative reminiscent of LA Confidential.

The term Cold War has long been associated with the "red menace" of communism at home and abroad. Yet as Lee Bernstein shows in this illuminating study, during the 1950s the threat posed by organized crime preoccupied Americans at least as much as the fear of communist subversion. At the beginning of the decade, the televised hearings of Senator Estes Kefauver's crime committee, focusing on colorful mob figures such as Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello, attracted far more attention than the spy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In the years that followed, public concern about gangsters and racketeering continued unabated, even after the anticommunist fever of McCarthyism had begun to subside.

Drawing on a broad range of evidence, from government records to films, television shows, and pulp novels, Bernstein explains how the campaign against organized crime, like the crusade against communism, reflected deep social and political anxieties. Just as the inquisitions of Senator McCarthy fed on popular fears of international conspiracy and alien infiltration, the anticrime investigations of the 1950s raised the specter of a foreign-based criminal cartel -- the Sicilian Mafia -- preying on a vulnerable American public. In both cases, the association of the foreign-born with criminal or un-American activity led to the creation of state and local citizens committees and to calls for new restrictions on immigration. Labor unions also came under attack, particularly after the McClellan Committee and its chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, claimed to have found a link between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, led by Jimmy Hoffa, and the Mafia.

As Bernstein points out, despite significant changes in the way organized crime actually operated, and despite repeated protests from Italian Americans, the popular image of the sinister gangster persisted, because it served a more profound need. In an era marked by widespread uncertainty and rapid social change, the fight against a common enemy, real or imagined, helped forge a Cold War consensus across shifting lines of race, class, and ethnicity by redefining what it meant to be an American.

It was an explosion that reverberated across the country—and into the very heart of early-twentieth-century America. On the morning of October 1, 1910, the walls of the Los Angeles Times Building buckled as a thunderous detonation sent men, machinery, and mortar rocketing into the night air. When at last the wreckage had been sifted and the hospital triage units consulted, twenty-one people were declared dead and dozens more injured. But as it turned out, this was just a prelude to the devastation that was to come.

In American Lightning, acclaimed author Howard Blum masterfully evokes the incredible circumstances that led to the original “crime of the century”—and an aftermath more dramatic than even the crime itself.

With smoke still wafting up from the charred ruins, the city’s mayor reacts with undisguised excitement when he learns of the arrival, only that morning, of America’s greatest detective, William J. Burns, a former Secret Service man who has been likened to Sherlock Holmes. Surely Burns, already world famous for cracking unsolvable crimes and for his elaborate disguises, can run the perpetrators to ground.

Through the work of many months, snowbound stakeouts, and brilliant forensic sleuthing, the great investigator finally identifies the men he believes are responsible for so much destruction. Stunningly, Burns accuses the men—labor activists with an apparent grudge against the Los Angeles Times’s fiercely anti-union owner—of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings.

While preparation is laid for America’s highest profile trial ever—and the forces of labor and capital wage hand-to-hand combat in the streets—two other notable figures are swept into the drama: industry-shaping filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who perceives in these events the possibility of great art and who will go on to alchemize his observations into the landmark film The Birth of a Nation; and crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow, committed to lend his eloquence to the defendants, though he will be driven to thoughts of suicide before events have fully played out.

Simultaneously offering the absorbing reading experience of a can’t-put-it-down thriller and the perception-altering resonance of a story whose reverberations continue even today, American Lightning is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.
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