Books set in Los Angeles.
July 10, 2007 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Can you point me towards good books set in Los Angeles?

In a few weeks, I'm going to be visiting LA for the first of what will likely be many times. I'd like to learn about the history/culture/geography/etc of the area by reading fiction or nonfiction stories set there. Obviously a good story is important, but the more specifics of LA (and its surrounding areas) are featured, the better. Are there good books for this? Of course, Wikipedia has a list of movies set in LA, but not novels.

Also, since I failed miserably with Google and Amazon, can you give me advice on how best to search for this kind of thing? I'd like to try this with a couple other places as well.
posted by Durin's Bane to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Almost anything by James Ellroy.

Almost anything by Raymond Chandler.

Also, John Fante.

And, for that matter, Bukowski, some of whose novels are not so bad.

Also, believe it or not, Steve Martin's fiction.
posted by dersins at 10:56 AM on July 10, 2007

Try Michael Connolly's Harry Bosch novels. They are fast-paced, well-written detective stories set in and around L.A.
posted by taliaferro at 10:58 AM on July 10, 2007

The Connolly website also has photos of the locations in L.A. where major events in his stories take place.
posted by taliaferro at 11:01 AM on July 10, 2007

seconding Ellroy and Chandler. In the same Vein, Dashiell Hammett wrote at least a couple stories set in LA.
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:02 AM on July 10, 2007

Read City of Quartz by Mike Davis. Not only is it good, but it has an entire chapter devoted to listing other books set in LA, iirc.
posted by salvia at 11:02 AM on July 10, 2007

The anthology Writing L.A., edited by David Ulin (now editor of the L.A. Times Book Review), has great stuff, ranging from Helen Hunt Jackson writing in the 19th century through classic noir (Chandler's "Red Wind") and up through contemporary writers.
posted by azure_swing at 11:09 AM on July 10, 2007

I second John Fante, especially "Ask the dust" and it's prologue, which can be found in "The Big Hunger" (a collection of his short stories).

Bukowski was a big fan of Fante's, if that counts for anything.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 11:17 AM on July 10, 2007

Fante is great, as are the Harry Bosch novels.
posted by OmieWise at 11:21 AM on July 10, 2007

Most of Jim Thompson's novels too. LA is good for pulp noir.
posted by klangklangston at 11:26 AM on July 10, 2007

Ed Ruscha, Every Building On The Sunset Strip
posted by nyoki at 11:27 AM on July 10, 2007

Less than Zero - Bret Easton Ellis
The Player - Michael Tolkin
Screwjack - Hunter S Thompson
Play it As it Lays - Joan Didion
posted by mattbucher at 11:34 AM on July 10, 2007

James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce
posted by minkll at 11:35 AM on July 10, 2007

I enjoyed Budd Schulburg's "What Makes Sammy Run?", although the real-life hypocrisy of the author during the blacklist era put me off a bit when I found out.

One of the best things I've ever read re: L.A. is Steve Martin's essay "The Hissy Fit" in his book "Pure Drivel."

If want to hear a pompous jackass endear himself to the New Yorker crowd through mindless L.A. bashing, read Mike Davis. But really, don't.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:38 AM on July 10, 2007

oh how could I forget "The Last Tycoon" by Fitzgerald? Unfinished, but what's there is great.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:47 AM on July 10, 2007

I really enjoyed "City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's" by Otto Friedrich. It's a non-fiction work that captures an interesting cultural moment before the red scare set in.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:55 AM on July 10, 2007

"The Day of the Locust" by Nathanael West is a tremendous novel about Hollywood.

One of my favorite books ever isn't about L.A. per se, but it is about SoCal's suburbs. It's "Holy Land" by D.J. Waldie. If you're into architecture, Reyner Banham's "Architecture of Four Ecologies" could prove interesting. I haven't read it since college, but I remember liking it then.

Another yes for Fante, Ulin, and Didion.
posted by serialcomma at 12:11 PM on July 10, 2007

To the many wonderful noire-ish suggestions thus far, I'd add any of Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins books, which trace the history of the African-American community in LA as they trace the life of the protagonist.

For a shortcut, you could also watch the excellent film version of "Devil in a Blue Dress."
posted by YoungAmerican at 12:26 PM on July 10, 2007

Walter Mosley's Easy Rollins books.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:27 PM on July 10, 2007

For non-fiction I would highly recommend Cadillac Desert by Mark Reisner. Although it is about the American West there are several great chapters on how Los Angeles was built on false promises and shady water deals. This book goes in to depth in a very readable way about much of the intrigue you may recall from Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

Also good is John McPhee's The Control of Nature which has a piece on the geology of the LA Basin and attempts to prevent massive boulder damage.
posted by rosebengal at 12:37 PM on July 10, 2007

Great question! How about modern LA stuff: good novels/nonfiction writing about LA in the last 5 years?
posted by lalochezia at 12:43 PM on July 10, 2007

Neil Gaiman's graphic novel "Murder Mysteries" takes place in both the earthly city of Angels and the divine city of Angels.

Also, seconding Less Than Zero (it's kind of fucked up, just so you know).
posted by SBMike at 1:13 PM on July 10, 2007

We Got the Neutron Bomb, an oral history of the LA punk scene, is a great read.
posted by look busy at 1:25 PM on July 10, 2007

I second City of Quartz by Mike Davis but find it hard to believe that what I consider the ultimate non-fiction book on Los Angeles, Norman Klein's History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory hasn't been included. the sheer amount of information to be found in there is stunning.

someone mentiones steve martin. while martin is an excellent writer and I do recommend his novels, first and foremost The Pleasure of my Company, I don't see how the books could enhance your vision of L.A.

(consider watching michael mann's "Heat" and "Collateral" ... nobody else makes the nocturnal L.A. look this good. great L.A. daytime overviews can be found in movies like "Falling Down" and "Short Cuts")
posted by krautland at 1:39 PM on July 10, 2007

T.C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain
posted by kittyprecious at 2:01 PM on July 10, 2007

If you want history, Kevin Starr's California Dreams series covers the history of the whole state. Material Dreams is about Southern California through the 20's - the early history of LA. Embattled Dreams covers the war years and has a lot about LA during that time.

For a very different take, how about the fabulous Francesca Lia Block, starting with Weetzie Bat?
posted by gingerbeer at 2:36 PM on July 10, 2007

Steve Erickson's Amnesiascope.

Great book.
posted by jayder at 2:47 PM on July 10, 2007

If you like science fiction, try Kage Baker's "Company" novels, particularly Mendoza in Hollywood. (It's the third in the series; some things will make more sense if you also read the first two.) It contains a lot about the early history of the city and the movie studios, and it's also an ode to the natural setting of LA.

The Los Angeles tag at Amazon might have more ideas.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:47 PM on July 10, 2007

Bukowski's 'Ham on Rye' might be a bit dark for some, but for me it really evokes the atmosphere of early 20th-century Los Angeles and how it was still perceived as a promised land for so many, even as the cracks were already beginning to show.
posted by macdara at 3:00 PM on July 10, 2007

If He Hollers Let Him Go
by Chester Himes

It's set in World War II era LA. Gives a good picture of race relations before the civil rights era. Wonderful, explosive early book by the author of Cotton Comes to Harlem.
posted by subatomiczoo at 4:21 PM on July 10, 2007

Lithium for Medea by Kate Braverman. She also wrote a memoir set partly Los Angeles, though I haven't read it yet. Her work is on the experimental side - lyrical, stream-of-consciousness, prose poems, etc.
posted by clumbsy at 4:29 PM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Since everyone's recommending hardboiled fiction, why not try the Los Angeles Noir collection of short stories. From the publisher:
This is a literary travelogue from the Chinese mansions of San Marino to the day spas of Koreatown to the windy hills of Mullholland Drive, the baby gangsters of East Hollywood, the OG entrepreneur of Leimert Park, the old money of Beverly Hills, and the working class of Mar Vista.
posted by robcorr at 6:33 PM on July 10, 2007
posted by TheRaven at 6:34 PM on July 10, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, thank you everyone for all the recommendations. This will keep me reading for awhile. And thank you mbrubeck for the info about tags at Amazon. I don't know how I've never noticed that.
posted by Durin's Bane at 7:44 PM on July 10, 2007

+Michael Connolly
+Didion's "Play it As It Lays"
+Janet Fitch ("White Oleander," "Paint it Black")

Also, I just read a great compilation called "Los Angeles Noir." Almost 20 short stories, each in a different LA neighborhood. The literary equivalent of a city's mixtape.

It can be a great city--enjoy.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 8:04 PM on July 10, 2007

Seconding Francesca Lia Block (I'm brujita for Witch Baby)..she describes LA in her memoir about her daughter's first year as being "fraught with beauty". Also, anything you can find of Pleasant Gehman's.
posted by brujita at 10:14 PM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not a novel at all, but if you're going to visiting here regularly, you'll get a great understanding of the geography from Above Los Angeles.
posted by forallmankind at 8:06 AM on July 11, 2007

Some say Ross MacDonald and his Lew Archer detective were the equal, if not better, than the Raymond Chandler novels. I'd be inclined to agree.

Also, within this book there are mentions of 200-plus books set in L.A., and right here's that entire list.
posted by big scary freak at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2007

Carey McWilliams' Southern California An Island on the Land is the most readable and compelling history of the city through the middle of the last century. Timothy Turner's Turn off the Sunshine is public domain and downloadable from the Internet Archive. Ed Sanders' The Family is my pick for a Manson book (BUG-liosi is the man, maaaan). Oh, and Leo Politi's Bunker Hill and Tony Millionaire's Sock Monkey!
posted by Scram at 5:57 PM on July 11, 2007

The Family is a great suggestion.
posted by OmieWise at 7:07 PM on July 11, 2007

A Mystery Strumpet column on recent LA-based books.
posted by robcorr at 10:02 PM on July 12, 2007

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