L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
Today on Friday Night Lit-Fights we have a hypothetical battle between two titans as their rookie selves. This truly is a battle of the fiercest '80s neo-noir featherweights — in one corner, weighing in at 215 pages, we have a classically trained neophyte with the pugilistic noir chops of yesteryear — Devil in a Blue Dress. In the other corner, we have another first-timer, the flamboyant, self-winking, 201-paged The Monkey's Raincoat drawing a different kind of breath from throwback noir.
The competitors are both lean, smooth-moving, and hungry for victory. One will emerge victorious, the other will sleep alone in a pile of vicodin and shame.
Sort of. And that's where the boxing reference end (mostly).
In this battle of the first novels, the actual story means very little — this is detective fiction after all. There are twists, there are turns, nothing ends quite like it starts, etc., etc. In two upstarts out to prove themselves, there ought to be some mind-blowing new plot conventions or greater events at stake. Nope. Thankfully, though, these books both birth two pretty unique characters in a genre usually hopped-up with tired cliches.
Robert Crais' Elvis Cole in The Monkey's Raincoat is the embodiment of a 1980s manly ideal that never quite existed — and he perhaps helps sow the seeds of that forever-young childishness that dominates the subsequent three decades. On top of balancing an avuncular humor and a never-grow-up Disnified attitude, he's got a teenager's sense of sexuality that somehow lands him the girl (in Raincoat's case, both girls). He drives a fancy car and has those “I was in the shit” set of Rambo skills us '80s kids craved (Cole was in the “University of Southeast Asia, two-year program”).
In Cole's first adventure, he's hired to help an attractive lady and her attractive friend track down her son and husband. The trip from good samaritan PI to army-of-one takes him through the blow-fueled world of Hollywood producers to (obviously) a Mexican drug lord. Raincoat's L.A. is Cole's playground and it's full of gaudy rides.
In stark contrast, Walter Mosley's Easy Rollins in Devil in a Blue Dress has more world-weary human qualities and wears L.A. like breathable, broken-in Zoot suit. At the outset, he's just lost his job, and gets swept into the L.A. underworld's machinery, motivated by a simple human need — dollars. He's a sharp-minded and martially-skilled gentleman with a demeanor that matches his moniker — easy.
In the casually meandering start to Easy's ride, he's just got to find out if an attractive woman shows up at a club he already frequents. From there he tightens his grip on the proverbial steering-wheel as he descends into the (obviously) seedy world of L.A. politics — black ladies passing as white ladies, rich politicians touching kids, and so on. Dress resembles Hollywood drama, but, thankfully, it's happening in L.A., and doesn't lean on the typical the crutch of using Hollywood to respresent L.A.
Under the surface of every noir hero is a raging id — that unquestioning force of “being right” that is tempered by the ego-driven detective's desire to “get it right” — which is why they have id-like sidekicks to do all the crazy shit they won't do. Cole's id is a silent man-of-action type named Joe Pike. We're never sure what Pike is going to get himself into because he doesn't say anything. At all. Ever. He just does. Killing suspects and breaking rules.
Rollins' other half, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, is an agent of chaos but with that similarly keen understanding of the notion that “questioning” happens faster when “shooting” is involved. But, the unhinged Mouse is also just as liable to draw down on the good guys. “Go fo' yo gun, les see who gets kilt,” he drunkenly dares Rollins as he handles his pistol. Cray.
We'd say something about the femmes fatale, or any of the femmes in general, but come on, this is noir, we'd be kidding ourselves if we said that either author made them anything but set-pieces or plot devices.
Pound for pound, page for page, both of these stories definitely belong in the Best L.A. Novel conversation — never underestimate the power of imitation and caricature in this town. Only one of these books deserves a place in the canon, however, as both of those qualities go but so far.
Based solely on sidekicks, we'd probably take Crais' Joe Pike. But as a whole package: Mosely actually gets L.A. His novel demonstrates a visceral understanding of who lives here, why the rest come here and what they all do in our fair city. In that human sense, Mosely's late-40s L.A. doesn't look very different from L.A. right now. Crais, while clever and entertaining, seems to miss the fact (in this book at least) that the City of Angels is not just a city of Hollywood gimmicks and cartoonery.
Winner: Devil in a Blue Dress