True-crime books get no respect, but I love them. Nay, I collect and cherish them, have done so since I was a kid. Sometimes I walk over to my bookshelves, take one down and flip through the photo section, savoring the black-and-white photos of mug shots, cops and corpses. (What, should I lie?) Scanning these shelves from top to bottom, I see my copy of John Borowski’s porn-flavored Albert Fish in His Own Words, down to Colin Wilson’s Origins of the Sexual Impulse (much attention paid there to German sex-murderers of the 1920s) and his encyclopedic A Criminal History of Mankind. Ah, satisfaction. My crime books, I tell myself, are clean porn.
There are a small but growing number of true-crime books out there on the subject of Los Angeles murder cases. This Top 10 list is meant as a (handy) guide for the discriminating yet prurient true-crime fan who wants her cadavers (most true-crime readers I’ve met have been women) served up piping hot in the glare of the Southern California sun, shining down over Los Angeles, the acknowledged capital of noir.
1. L.A. Despair by John Gilmore (Amok Books, L.A., 2005)
This book is a kind of postscript to the author’s classic Black Dahlia book, Severed, and fills out the larger picture of sensational L.A. crimes that haunted John Gilmore as a young native son, back in the 1940s and ’50s. The five cases that make up L.A. Despair are brutal, and the author presents horrific descriptions of each, with the emphasis on sordid and violent details. The book, in a word, is harsh.
If you’ve seen the 1955 movie I Want to Live (it stars Susan Hayward), you will be enlightened (or endarkened?) by Gilmore’s mercilessly depressing chronicle of its subject: a real-life Hollywood drifter and “murderess,” Barbara Graham, who knocked on a woman’s door one night in Burbank in 1953 and beat her to death in the mistaken belief that she would then make off with wads of that unfortunate woman’s cash (Graham’s idiot comrades had “heard” about said money being stashed in a safe in this particular house. Well, guess what? There wasn’t any).
Why in the world some wrongheaded screenwriter (Walter Wanger) would paint a sympathetic portrait of Graham in his movie, just after the world had learned how guilty she was, thoroughly baffled the young Gilmore (whose father was an LAPD patrolman). So here he sets the record straight. The verdict then and now? Barbara deserved to suck the gas. Some of Gilmore’s re-created dialogue sounds fictional, but the atmosphere that’s conjured up of seedy-underbelly ’50s L.A., and Graham’s slimy gang of fellow criminals, is sordid to the point of smelly.
For sheer brutality, read Gilmore’s account of Billy Cook, an I-hate-everybody criminal whose motto was, “I’m gonna live by the gun, and roam.” He was walking bad news, especially for an unfortunate family that made the horrible mistake one sunny day in 1951 of picking up an ominous-looking hitchhiker: Cook.
2. Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder by Mary Pacios (1st Books, n.p. 1999)
Artist and author Mary Pacios grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, during the Depression. Her neighbor and mentor was the teenage Elizabeth “Bette” Short, who went on to tragic, posthumous fame as the “Black Dahlia,” L.A.’s most famous murder victim. This memoir is the result of Pacios repaying a debt that she felt she owed her childhood friend: Short had helped little Mary to cope when she was molested at a young age.
More than any other Dahlia book, this one paints a picture of the living, breathing Short, a “star” to her friends and neighbors in Medford, strutting proudly down the neighborhood streets in all her statuesque beauty, black hair bouncing, making men walk into lampposts. (“Here she comes! Damn, she’s prettier than any movie star!” her uncle once shouted in their living room, when Short was outside, sashaying past the house.)
It’s poignant and ominous to read Pacios’ personal memory of a teenage Short, warning her to beware a certain molester in town: “Never go near that man. He is not a nice man. Don’t ever, ever be alone with him. And if he ever bothers you, you tell me or your sisters, Mary. I know you’re too young to understand. But, promise me you’ll do that?” So there’s this bit of irony: the seemingly worldly-wise Short, a stunner whose own father later complained that “she hung out with thugs,” not taking her own advice, resulting in her own horrendous tragedy. So breathe a big, heavy sigh for the beautiful Elizabeth Short, and read this book.
3. Stolen Away by Michael Newton (Pocket Books, N.Y. 2000)
Stolen Away is the prolific author Michael Newton’s detailed account of one of the most outrageous L.A. murders ever, the 1927 kidnap-murder of 12-year-old Marion Parker. The book may be short on period atmosphere but it’s big on detail, chronicling every step of William Edward Hickman’s slide into infamy as the kidnapper and murderer of young Marion, his boss’s daughter, whose dismembered body parts he’d scattered in Elysian Park.
Newton digs into Hickman’s background, devoting many pages to a cross-country robbery spree that followed his graduation from high school in Kansas City, Missouri. One of the strangest elements of this saga is how a young overachiever could turn into a nasty little thug who would kill random individuals for chump change; Hickman seemed determined to make his once-promising life pointless.
Inspired by the recent Leopold & Loeb “thrill killing” of a young boy in Chicago, Hickman targeted his L.A. banker-boss’s beloved daughter, snatching her from school one day and holding her, tied up, in his apartment; after a day, he strangled her and cut up the body.
Other books on this case have tried, oddly, to make a big deal out of the fact that Hickman liked movies, as if a love of “exciting” films would whip him up into a murderous frenzy; to his credit, Newton never touches this non-issue. Hickman was just determined to be bad, writing: “For several years I have had a peculiar thought. Even though my habits have been clean, and although my high school record is commendable, I have had an uncontrollable desire to commit a great murder.”
The reader is left thoroughly puzzled by this enigmatic destroyer, who apparently just wanted to be (in)famous, and got his wish.
4. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (W.W. Norton, N.Y. 1974)
After all that’s been written over the years about Charles Manson and the Family, you still can’t go wrong with the original magnum opus on the case by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson away for life.
The next time some crime nerd on a YouTube comments section protests, “But Manson didn’t kill anybody,” just tell them to read this book, a near-encyclopedic chronicle of Mansoniana, and point out to them that Manson’s act of walking into the LaBianca house in Los Feliz, tying the couple up and then ordering his buddies to stab them to death (all detailed here, of course), constitutes conspiracy to commit murder … then tell them to shut the hell up (that’s what you do on YouTube, after all)…
5. The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Batallion by Ed Sanders (E.P. Dutton, N.Y., 1971; revised ed. Da Capo Press, N.Y., 2002)
And here I am recommending a second Manson book! The Family is by beat poet/yippie activist Ed Sanders, a former member of the New York folk-music group The Fugs, who found himself sucked into the Manson crime vortex after covering the case for the L.A. Free Press. Sanders writes about the Manson crimes and the trial in a decidedly period-flavored, present-tense, hippied-out style. This can grate a little bit, but it also makes the woozy, groovy atmosphere of 1969 L.A. more immediate, putting the reader’s mind into that milieu.
Unlike buttoned-up Bugliosi (whom the Manson Family called “the Bug”), Sanders was able to literally thumb a ride with Family members, some of whom may or may not have been killers themselves but who in 1970 were still running around free: free to talk to Ed Sanders! For this reason, The Family has the edge over Helter Skelter in terms of letting the Family and their associates speak, even if at times it’s gibberish. To quote Sanders: “Oo-Eee-Oo!”
6. A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor by Robert Giroux (Knopf, N.Y., 1990)
You can’t get more ur-1920s than the unsolved murder of prominent ’20s film director William Desmond Taylor. This book is elegantly written, focusing on the case at hand and its principal players from the scandal-plagued year of 1922. Giroux focuses on the career of the young ingénue Mary Miles Minter, who loved the much older Taylor with a love that lasted as long as she did, that is into her 80s.
“I knew when I laid eyes on him that he was the one man in the world for me, and that he reciprocated my love…”
This was wishful thinking on Minter’s part, and the director (who was gay) tried to humor the young actress with noncommittal purrings of affection that alternated with stern warnings about the gap in their ages.
“‘Your mother knows best, Mary, I am an old man,’ he would say, but he was not old in spirit or understanding and that was all that mattered to me. He was mine,” Minter told the L.A. Times, just days after the mysterious killing that shattered her life. In the same article, Minter described kissing Taylor’s cold face on the slab at the L.A. morgue: “‘Do you love me, Desmond?’ I said. He answered me. I could hear his voice. ‘I love you, Mary. I shall love you always,’ he whispered. I kissed him and put a red rose in his hands. … The door opened. The undertaker was there. I went away.”
This case is the oldest whodunit in Hollywood history, and it centers around one question: Was it Minter’s mother who killed Taylor, angry (as she was known to have been) over the girl’s so-called affair with the older man? And if so, did that mother pay off two generations of L.A. district attorneys to keep the threat of arrest-conviction-and-prison at bay?
Unlike most “Taylorologists,” Giroux refreshingly says no. He believes it was a cartel of local drug dealers that done it, who were simply tired of the director meddling in their business. Taylor was known in town then as an anti-drug crusader, protective of his young actors and their well-being.
In Giroux’s hands the case retains its mystery, because he can’t point to a specific assassin, can’t give a name to that mysterious masked person who walked through the screen door of the director’s bungalow on Alvarado Boulevard one night and shot him, then left. But he makes a good case against the “drug gang,” whose activities in L.A. were public knowledge in 1922.
7. My Dark Places by James Ellroy (Knopf, N.Y., 1996)
“L.A. looked bright and beautiful,” James Ellroy writes in this book, recalling how he felt walking the streets after being drummed out of the army in 1965. “I knew I’d pursue some kind of swinging fucking destiny right here in my own hometown.” Ellroy gives a first-person-singular performance in this, his most important autobiographical book.
As serious fanciers of “the Demon Dog of L.A. crime fiction” know, the central trauma of Ellroy’s life was the 1958 murder of his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, when he was 10. In this memoir, the author of The Black Dahlia narrates his own latter-day investigation into the old, cold, unsolved crime that formed his psyche.
It couldn’t have happened to a more volatile boy; young Ellroy grew up obsessively reading crime novels and “acting out” at school. Forget about college: “School was for geeks and spastics. My motto was Live Free or Die.” A good, (un-)healthy portion of this coming-of-age tale is devoted to Ellroy’s misfit existence as a semi-homeless pillhead in mid-’60s L.A., devouring crime novels and obsessing (sometimes erotically) over the death of his mother, aka “the redhead.”
Since the book’s jacket copy doesn’t promise a solution to Jean Ellroy’s death, you’re not surprised by My Dark Places’ shaggy-dog ending: Though Ellroy recruits a homicide detective to help him, their investigation ends up with no real suspect, and the book concludes with a string of incantatory Ellroyisms directed toward his long-dead mother’s memory:
Your secrets were not safe with me.
You earned my devotion.
You paid for it in public disclosure.
I robbed your grave.
It’s a fascinating read.
8. Cult of the Great Eleven by Samuel Fort (Isirtu Publishing, Omaha, 2015)
“America in the 1920s was, to a prospective cult leader, a hunting ground abundant with wildlife,” according to this book, and dear ol’ Southern Cal was a leader therein. This odd and fascinatingly obsessive book is packed with creepy photos and documents about one scary cult in late-1920s Simi Valley (!) that descended into involvement with burials and “resurrections” of dead followers, which didn’t quite pan out. In almost encyclopedic fashion Fort dissects one of the weirdest religious cults in California history: the so-called Cult of the Great Eleven. (Eleven what, you ask … why, angels, of course. Angels of death!)
“God commands that according to the concord of the stars of God’s Body that the Seventh Trumpet of Gabriel be held in one hand under the control of (Mrs.) May Otis.” Now doesn’t that sound commanding and convincing? Well, to some folks it did. This true story is so convoluted and weird (and redolent of corpse smell) that there’s not the space to encapsulate it; let me just toss in the fact that oven-baked cult followers are a major part of this nauseating story of abuse-of-the-gullible.
9. The First With the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald and the Sordid Crimes of a City (Photo Friends Publications, L.A. 2016)
L.A. history blogger Joan Renner has three obsessions: vintage ladies’ cosmetics (she collects them), vintage Los Angeles crimes and vintage Aggie Underwood. Underwood was the city editor at the old L.A. Herald-Express newspaper for several decades after WWII. She was famous across the country as being the only female city editor (period) at any big-city American daily. She was also famously hard-boiled (or, in her words, “case-hardened”).
Underwood’s story is becoming more widely known now, thanks to scholars like Renner, who find in Underwood’s story a refreshing exception to the more-or-less all-male world that journalism was, pre-’60s and ’70s. Time magazine wrote in 1962: “Aggie has kept such a muscular grip on the news of L.A.’s seamy side that no one thinks of the graying grandmother as an interloper in a man’s world.”
Underwood was such an L.A. celeb that her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, sold well across the country. In that book postwar Americans learned of some mind-bending L.A. murder cases, and how hard-bitten a reporter she was: “One can understand putrefaction as a simple stench and view a neglected cadaver clinically,” she wrote, before going into more detail from her early days as a crime-beat reporter: “One can cover a love slaying, as I did once … and see a girl whose liver was hacked out and thrown into the corner of a room … ”
Renner’s book on Underwood’s long career, First With the Latest, was officially published to accompany an L.A. Central Library exhibit of Herald photos, focusing on the then-“sensational” cases that she covered. It’s a great introduction to Underwood’s life and career, and to some long-forgotten L.A. crimes that will enrich your life.
10. Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger (Dell, N.Y. 1975)
A true classic. Avant-garde filmmaker Anger took a detour from his work as an auteur to indulge his childhood fascination with Hollywood scandals from the 1920s to the early ’60s. There’s something hallucinatory about this spin back through time into the semi-artificial, painted Shangri-La that was Hollywood in the early days, when beautiful young actors and actresses danced at the Cocoanut Grove and, according to actor Lyle Talbot, “Everyone was sleeping with everyone.”
In this book, our sly host revels in the craziest, blood-and-vomit-spattered cases of murder and suicide he could dredge up from Hollywood’s Golden Age. With generous amounts of period photos, Anger details mysterious celebrity deaths (Thelma Todd, the “ice cream blonde,” found choked to death by her own car’s exhaust fumes in her Pacific Palisades garage), gory celebrity car accidents (Jayne Mansfield, beheaded) and vintage celebrity sex scandals (Fatty Arbuckle and that alleged rape-with-a-bottle, which probably never happened, though the accusation was enough to ruin him).
Of course, the distance of time and the patina of “vintage”-ness, a big part of this book’s appeal, can make these bloody tragedies seem quaint and quite palatable.
Anger’s writing is witty in a snide, catty way. On the suicide of “Mexican Spitfire” actress Lupe Velez, a big star from the ’30s, he writes: “Man-addict Lupe’s tortured flings were frequent and brief. From stars her sights slipped … to cowboys to stuntmen to the parasitic crowd of he-men Hollywood hangers-on, professional older-dame pleasers, studs on the take whose gig was gigolo…
“Then … she realized that Harald Ramond, her latest, had knocked her up… She could not bear to snuff the gigolo’s fetus within her … .” This story gets grim, as Velez then kills herself with an overdose of Seconal. Cut!