James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons features the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction staking out L.A. as his own, creating a road map of his own psyche by way of the crimes that have been committed in the city during the second half of the twentieth century -- some well-documented, others not as infamous.
Just out on DVD, the series only lasted six episodes earlier this year on Investigation Discovery. The show's short run is regrettable. Ellroy tells these tales in his own inimitable manner, declaiming each word as if it were a lightning strike. Through his voice, we feel the weight of the crimes themselves and the impact upon those left to grieve.
The weighty subject matter of the series is undermined by flashy, cheaply-produced re-enactments and a glitzy editorial style that distracts from the stories that Ellroy tells. And who really knows what to make of flat-out bizarre sequences in which the author converses with a foul-mouthed, computer-animated "police dog" named Barko.
The first episode is the most important, setting Ellroy's life and the landscape of L.A.'s crime history in the context of his own mother's murder. From there, each episode re-visits a different crime or two, as well as their locations.
Here are five sites he visits:
5. Near Arroyo High School, El Monte
Jean Hilliker was killed when Ellroy was ten years old. She was strangled. The murder was never solved. In 1996, Ellroy wrote My Dark Places, which details the story of her killing and the recent investigation Ellroy participated in to solve the case. In the premiere episode of City of Demons Ellroy shows how her death shaped the way he thinks about women, L.A., and the legacies of individual crimes. Her body was found on the street adjacent to Arroyo High School in El Monte.
4. The 3800 Block of South Norton Avenue, Leimert Park
The killing of Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, was the crime of the century. In fact, her still-unsolved murder is the most infamous homicide this side of the Jack the Ripper killings. In 1947, her bisected body was found in an empty lot in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles. Organs had been removed, and the body had been completely drained of blood. Her meticulous, calculating killer was never identified. Theories abound. Ellroy himself novelized the crime. Her murder haunts the city to this day.
3. The Santa Monica Pier
On November 29, 1956, Steven Nash stabbed 10-year-old Larry George Rice 28 times beneath the Santa Monica Pier. It was the latest in a string of murders by Nash, who usually targeted homosexuals. After a previous killing, Nash stripped the corpse of his victim, and had the clothes altered so he could wear them. Rice's murder ended Nash's spree. He was quickly captured and ended up in the gas chamber at San Quentin, as Larry George Rice's father watched.
2. Former Residence of Lana Turner at 730 North Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills
In 1958, Lana Turner was enjoying a comeback after a few years out of the limelight. She had just been nominated for an Oscar for Peyton Place, and was romantically involved with mob thug Johnny Stompanato.
Turner's 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, had already endured rape at the hands of Turner's fourth husband, also-ran actor Lex Barker. Now, Crane was witness to Turner and Stompanato's tempestuous relationship -- one that had both Turner and Crane afraid for their lives.
During a furious argument one night, Stompanato threatened both women directly. Crane retrieved a knife from the kitchen, and stood outside her mother's door. When it opened, she stabbed Stompanato once. He died almost immediately. Although his death was ruled a justifiable homicide, Crane spent three years in the California juvenile justice system at a girls' boarding school.
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1. Brenda Allen's apartment at Ninth St. and Fedora St., Koreatown
Brenda Allen was a high-end Los Angeles madam carrying on with Sgt. Elmer V. Jackson of the LAPD's administrative vice squad circa 1948. Allen had skirted attempts by the LAPD to shut her down thanks to the protection she received on Jackson's orders.
However, one night the two were seated in Allen's car in front of her apartment, and were the targets of an attempted robbery. Jackson shot and killed the would-be thief. Press coverage of the incident revealed the liaison between Allen and Jackson, and shed harsh light on widespread LAPD corruption. The upshot of the scandal was the hiring, in 1950, of William H. Parker as chief, whose 16-year tenure focused on public relations and militaristic organizational techniques.
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