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(Holly)wood Pulp: 15 Books That Helped Me Understand the City of Angels

[Editor’s Note: Visit Duane Swierczynski’s website for a fantastic opportunity. Check it out before you read this article.]

Until Fun & Games, I set most of my novels in Philadelphia. No, I don’t have some kickback deal with the local chamber of commerce. Philly’s where I was born and raised, and for better or worse, it’s where my imagination goes to play. If I had been born in, say, Grand Island, Nebraska, I’m sure I would have set my stories there, albeit with minor differences. (For example, The Wheelman may have been published as The Combine Harvester Man.)

Over the years, however, I’ve spent an increasing amount of time in Los Angeles—book signings, meetings, festivals, vacations. And then a funny thing happened: my imagination started to cheat on Philadelphia.

Fun & Games is the love child of one of those L.A. brain flings, as is “Hell Of An Affair,” my short story for the L.A. Noire anthology. (Sometimes my brain can be a total slut.) And while Fun & Games is mostly told from the perspective of an outsider, I felt like I had to learn all I could about the City of Angels. Otherwise, what kind of baby daddy would I be?

So I spent a lot of time gorging on L.A. music, L.A.-set movies, L.A. novels, and of course, L.A. history. Here’s an informal list* of the 15 books that put me in the mindset of this crazy town.

And please add your favorites in the comments section below. You never know when my brain will want to stray again…

*I’ve left out the obvious L.A. classics, both modern and vintage—James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike thrillers, as well as Nathanael West, Horace McCoy, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. I mean, you came here for the oddball stuff, right?

* * *

L.A. Bizarro: The All-New Insider’s Guide to the Obscure, The Absurd and the Perverse, by Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian. This book was my Bible during my last couple of visits to L.A., and I’m not going to stop until I hit every last freaky cafeteria, kitschy dive and grisly murder site. There’s an older edition from 1997, and I recommend tracking that one down, too—there are enough differences to make it worth your time.

L.A. Noir: The City As Character, by Alain Silver & James Ursini. A tour of Los Angeles through its most important export: crime and noir flicks. Leave the GPS at home and take this guide instead, along with L.A. Bizarro, instead.

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, by Judith Foreman. There are other Chandler bios, but Foreman’s bio/travelogue takes you the actual apartments and houses where Big Ray worked… and loved. Also super-handy if you’re the kind of noir geek who makes a fetish of visiting the residences of famous dead writers.

Waiting for the Sun: A Rock and Roll History of Los Angeles, by Barney Hoskyns. As I built an iPod playlist of my favorite California/L.A. songs, I thought I was gathering isolated bursts of Southland genius (surf rock, L.A. garage, SoCal punk, etc.) But Hoskyns shows it’s all part of one giant continuum, from Nat “King” Cole to Beck.

The White Album, by Joan Didion. Sharp-eyed dispatches from the front lines of California in the late 1960s: “In the years I am talking about I was living in a large house in a part of Hollywood that had once been expensive and was now described by one of my acquaintances as a ‘senseless-killing neighborhood.’”

L.A. Noir, by John Buntin. If you dig Ellroy (or the new L.A. Noire video game), you’ll go craaaaaaazy over this true-life cop-and-kingpin saga, covering mid-20th century L.A.

Regards, by John Gregory Dunne. Not every essay in this collection is L.A.-centric, but there are enough to tip the scales. My favorite: “Eureka!”, which perfectly captures the giddy feeling that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever flirted with the idea of Moving West. Also essential: Dunne’s The Studio, Monster, and True Confessions.

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts, by David Thomson. Here’s Thomson’s stunning description of Mulholland Drive: “Imagine Marilyn Monroe, fifty miles long, lying on her side, half-buried on a ridge of crumbling rock, the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, with chaparral, flowers and snakes writhing over her body, and mists, smog or dreams gathering in every curve.”

Some Time in the Sun, by Tom Dardis. The adventures of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Aldous Huxley and James Agee in Hollywood. A real-life Barton Fink.

Hollywood, by Charles Bukowski. A roman à clef about the making of Barfly, and it’s every bit as rude and funny as the film itself. I read this just as I was having my first meetings with a large movie studio, and I kept it close at all times, like a toddler with his binky.

Earthquake Weather and Blonde Lightning by Terrill Lankford. A one-two punch of pre-millenial tinseltown insanity—there’s even an earthquake!—and to my mind, the best Hollywood novel since Day of the Locust.

Hollywood & God by Robert Polito. A compact, stellar collection of poetry and mini-memoirs by the author of Savage Art, the acclaimed Jim Thompson bio. The highlight: “Barbara Payton: A Memoir,” in which a 13-year-old Polito is hired to interview the down-on-her-luck actress for an cheap-o autobiography.

Bright Shiny Morning, by James Frey. Not only is this novel compulsively readable (and suspenseful), it somehow covers L.A. from the dawn of time up until late last night. The story is packed with L.A.-types straight from central casting, but that’s the point—it’s the autobiography of a city, narrated by its own avatars.

Lost Angels, by David J. Schow. One of my earliest introductions to L.A. came in the form of these collected novellas. They blew my teenaged mind, but it took 20 years, a half-dozen heartbreaks and a poolside re-read to fully appreciate Schow’s meditations and love and obsession in and around Hollywood.

Harlan Ellison’s Hollywood. This book doesn’t exist. But it should, and if I had my way, it would be jam-packed with such classic L.A.-centric Ellison stories and essays as “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie” (Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled), “The Fault in My Lines” (Slippage), “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” (Angry Candy) and a generous heaping portions of his Los Angeles Free Press columns and film essays and scattered Hollywood memoirs. How can we make this happen?

Bonus! My 15 Favorite L.A. Set Movies

Barton Fink

Body Double


Die Hard

Ed Wood

Hickey & Boggs

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

L.A. Confidential

The Limey

The Long Goodbye

Mondo Hollywood

Mulholland Dr.

Repo Man

Sunset Boulevard

The Terminator

Bonus, Part Deux! 15 Songs That Remind Me of L.A.

“California Nights,” Lesley Gore

“Some Velvet Morning,” Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood

“Girl, You’re Blowing My Mind,” Jan & Dean

“Cruising For Burgers,” Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention

“’Til I Die,” The Beach Boys

“The Rebel Kind,” Dino, Desi & Billy

“L.A. Woman,” The Doors

“L.A. Freeway,” Jerry Jeff Walker

“(I’m Stuck in a Pagoda With) Tricia Toyota,” The Dickies

“Repo Man,” Iggy Pop

“The Other Side of Summer,” Elvis Costello

“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” A Tribe Called Quest

“Santa Monica,” Everclear

“Drinking in L.A.” Bran Van 3000

“Dani California,” Red Hot Chili Peppers

Duane Swierczynski is the author of several acclaimed crime thrillers, including Severance Package (Minotaur, 2008), which has been optioned by Lionsgate Films. A regular contributor for Marvel Comics, he lives in Philadelphia with his wife and children. Learn more

Mulholland Books will publish FUN AND GAMES, HELL AND GONE and POINT AND SHOOT in rapid succession starting this month.