Angels Flight | photo courtesy of Laura Ferres, Flickr
From the historic Angels Flight and iconic Hollywood Blvd. to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, LA landmarks have been featured in generations of acclaimed novels.
It’s the home of the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, a world famous street synonymous with glitz and glamour. Hollywood Blvd. has also had a long history in literature, with authors often looking at the flipside of the famed street’s allure. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is the first in his acclaimed series of hardboiled detective novels featuring Philip Marlowe, whose fictitious office is located on Hollywood Blvd. near Ivar Ave. The Big Sleep was named to Time Magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels published in the English language between 1923-2005. In 1994, the City of Los Angeles named the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga Blvd. Raymond Chandler Square in honor of the author.
Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust is set in Hollywood during the Great Depression. The acclaimed novel (also listed in the Time 100) tells the tale of a group of characters who have come to Tinseltown to pursue their dreams, from an aspiring starlet to a costume designer, a cowboy and a businessman named Homer Simpson. The climactic riot at a Hollywood movie premiere is one of the great scenes in LA literature.
Angelenos and visitors alike depend on LA’s freeways to navigate the sprawling metropolis, and it’s no surprise that they’ve provided inspiration to generations of authors. Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays centers on the fringes of Hollywood and in particular the faded actress Maria Wyeth, who tries to find solace by driving aimlessly on LA’s freeways:
“Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour.”
LA’s freeways are often referred to as “arteries” and other organic terms. In his poem Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin, Pulitzer Prize-winning Beat poet Gary Snyder contrasts the “calligraphy of cars” with the sounds of nature. Snyder describes the LA basin and hills as “Checkered with streetways. Floral loops / Of the freeway express and exchange.”
Located in the Bunker Hill district of Downtown Los Angeles, the historic Angels Flight has made numerous appearances in literature. It has two funicular cars: Sinai and Olivet. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe visits Angels Flight in The High Window and The Little Sister. Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight, the sixth novel featuring Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch, begins and ends at the landmark. The 2009 novel Angel’s Flight is a Mercy Alcutt mystery by Alice Duncan. Other novelists who have mentioned Angels Flight include John Fante, Linda L. Richards and children’s book author Leo Politi.
Though today its population is primarily of Latino/Hispanic descent, the Watts community was predominantly African American from the 1940s due to the Second Great Migration, which brought millions of African Americans from the South to states in the North, Midwest and West. One of Watts’ earliest appearances in literature was in God Sends Sunday, a 1931 novel by Arna Bontemp, an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance. Bontemp’s first novel centers on an African American jockey named Little Augie, a character based on Bontemp’s great-uncle. Bontemp, who was born in Louisiana and grew up in Watts, set the novel in New Orleans, St. Louis and “Mudtown,” a neighborhood at the edge of Watts.
“Easy” Rawlins is a character a created by author Walter Mosley, who featured Rawlins in ten bestselling novels and a collection of short stories that take place between the 1940s and the 1960s. Rawlins, a private detective and World War II veteran, made his first appearance in 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress, which was later adapted into a film starring Denzel Washington.
Home to the West Coast’s busiest seaport, San Pedro also provides a uniquely Southern Californian setting for authors. Michael Connelly introduced FBI agent Terry McCaleb in his 1998 novel Blood Work, which Clint Eastwood loosely adapted into a film of the same name that he starred in and directed. McCaleb lives on a houseboat called The Following Sea, which is docked in the Cabrillo Marina in San Pedro. The cat-and-mouse game begins with a visit from a mysterious woman: “[McCaleb] was coming down the main dock, past the row of millionaires’ boats, when he saw the woman standing in the stern of The Following Sea. It was half past ten on a Saturday morning and the warm whisper of spring had brought a lot of people out to the San Pedro docks.”
In 2006, former LAPD detective sergeant turned bestselling author Joseph Wambaugh published the first in the Hollywood Station series of police procedurals, featuring a unique cast of characters that include the surfer cops Flotsam and Jetsam. The fifth Hollywood Station novel, Harbor Nocturne (2012), takes the reader from the series’ familiar Wilcox Ave. police station south to the Port of Los Angeles.