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L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories

L.A. Noire is styled like a detective movie of the 1940s. Aesthetically, it pays homage to film noir, while adapting new technologies like real-time action and multiple camera angles. Set in post-war Los Angeles, it also features a jazz soundtrack.

Publication of an e-book of eight short stories by some of the world’s leading writers – in genres ranging from literary to pulp fiction – was announced in May. Each piece is set in 1947, the same year that casino owner Bugsy Siegel  and Elizabeth Short (‘The Black Dahlia’) were murdered.

Charles Adai, founder of the Hard Case Crime imprint, contributes the introduction, reflecting on Los Angeles’ place at the heart of noir fiction. With its perpetual sunshine, L.A. seems an unlikely setting for gloom.

Adai notes that none of the featured authors currently live in Los Angeles, a city so embedded in our minds that it is hardly necessary to visit. Ultimately, the dreamlike aura of Los Angeles can never equal our expectations – and disenchantment, when it comes, is all the more sour.

‘Yes, every major city has slums, desperate people living desperate lives,’ Ardai writes. ‘But only in L.A. do the slums come with a view of Shangri La.’

Megan Abbott, author of mysteries including Queenpin and The Song is You, starts up with ‘The Girl’, in which a jaded starlet visits a producer’s home for an audition. Her agent calls it the ‘Shark House’, and as she discovers its lurid depths, we are left in no doubt as to what is required of her.     

The next tale comes from veteran crime novelist Lawrence Block. ‘See the Woman’ adopts an oral history style, with a (fictional) cop reminiscing about his rookie days. He follows the case of a battered housewife, and as with Abbott, the real surprise is compassion in the face of evil.

Francine Prose, a novelist and critic, turns her hand to noir in ‘School for Murder’, a first-person narrative in which a traumatised ex-soldier visits a drama teacher for hypnosis to play a bit part in a crime movie. In ‘What’s in a Name?’, Jonathan Santlofer enters the mind of a lonely young man in a city obsessed by celebrity, who takes inspiration from a dead gangster.

‘Naked Angel’ by Joe R. Lansdale traces the murder of a beautiful woman with fetishist detail. In ‘Hell of an Affair’, Duane Swierczynski depicts a fatal reunion between a cop and his ex-lover. The closing piece, ‘Postwar Boom’ by Andrew Vachss, is told entirely in dialogue.

Black Dahlia and White Rose

Joyce Carol Oates is one of America’s most prolific, acclaimed writers. Among her many books are Black Water (1992); Foxfire (1993); We Were the Mulvaneys (1996); Man Crazy (1997); and Blonde (2000), her novel about the life of Marilyn Monroe.

Blonde is more popular with literary readers than fans of Monroe, because of Oates’ rather liberal attitude to the details of Marilyn’s biography. Interestingly, it is her own favourite work and she has likened her tragic heroine to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Marilyn Monroe was just beginning her film career in 1947, the year of her twenty-first birthday. Only months before, she had signed her first contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. Some friends from that time recall that she still answered to her birth name, Norma Jeane.

While Monroe was a Los Angeles native, Elizabeth Short – just two years her senior – had moved to California in 1942. She was pretty, dark-haired, and her distinctive style earned her a nickname, ‘The Black Dahlia’. Her fiancé, a fighter pilot, had died during World War II, and some thought she never fully recovered from the shock. (Marilyn would play a similarly bereaved woman in the 1952 movie, Don’t Bother to Knock.)

For many years, rumour-mongers have speculated that young Norma Jeane and the Dahlia may have crossed paths. ‘From what I understand, many women who headed out to Hollywood ended up as prostitutes, turning tricks until they could get their first film,’ one blogger wrote. ‘The theory is that Norma Jean and Beth Short teamed up at least once a week back in…I think it was 1946…and performed together.’ (From the ‘Comet Star Moon’ blog, 2003.)

Actually, the rumours are unfounded: the two women probably never met. Nonetheless, their lives provide the inspiration for Black Dahlia and White Rose, in which Oates adopts the guise of a detective, recording evidence from two male suspects, ‘Dr M’ and ‘K.K.’; interviewing Marilyn, a witness; and ‘Betty’, the murder victim, who retells her story ‘post mortem’.

‘They were lost girls looking for their fathers,’ the story begins. Norma Jeane never knew her father, and Betty’s father disappeared when she was a young girl. She had moved to California to find him, but was rejected once again. Norma Jeane observes that ‘Betty seemed angry at most men.’ Often referring to herself in the third person, Betty states that she favoured men who ‘can be handled.’

It is unlikely that Betty Short was really as tough, or bitter, as she appears here. Some friends said she was quiet and shy, while others claimed she led a double life.

Shielding her within a protective, hard-boiled persona, Oates allows Betty to reclaim the narrative. Her character conflicts with the seemingly naïve, gentle Norma Jeane. A hint of rivalry is apparent when Betty remarks that ‘Norma Jeane was very beautiful in a simpering-baby way’, while insisting that she was ‘not jealous’.

Reflecting ‘post mortem’ on Norma’s later fame, Betty argues that ‘it was not a decreed thing but mere chance’ that she would become known as a murder victim, and MM as a movie star. Betty had her own dreams – in Oates’ text, she compares herself to Hedy Lamarr – but she may have lacked Norma Jeane’s intense focus.

Oates suggests that Monroe’s fierce ambition was sparked by her thirst for love, which she was fatally denied as a child. Behind her guileless charm lies a melancholy wisdom, which helps her to empathise with Betty.

Oates embellishes the fact of Betty’s residence at the home of nightclub owner Mark Hansen. She was one of several young women who stayed there, and attended Hansen’s parties. While MM was never a guest of Hansen’s, she too would hover on the fringes of Hollywood during her starlet years. So the fictional device of making her Betty’s roommate is not implausible.

Dr. M. and K.K.

The ironically-named ‘K. Keinhardt’ is lifted from Blonde, an amalgam of various photographers who worked with Norma Jeane: David Conover, who ‘discovered’ her working at a munitions plant; Tom Kelley, who shot her infamous nude calendar; and, perhaps most significantly, Andre De Dienes, who wrote about their friendship in his journal.

‘Fact is, I was afraid to touch the White Rose,’ K.K. says of MM, giving her a nickname that contrasts directly with the Black Dahlia. ‘You could see the raw pleading in her blue eyes – the orphan child pleading – no love any man could give Norma would be enough.’ He is repelled by her desires. Norma echoes this sentiment when explaining her divorce from Jim Dougherty: ‘He could not love me as I needed to be loved.’

K.K. also recoils from Betty, for different reasons. He complains of her bad teeth and cross-eye, her ‘hard, knowing’ glare. ‘Betty was all over you,’ he recalls. ‘Like she was about to crawl into your lap and twine her arms around your neck and suck at your mouth like one of Dracula’s sisters.’

In another reinvention, Oates makes Betty his model as well. And it is through his photographs that ‘Dr M’ finds the girls. His full name, ‘Dr Mortenson’, is borrowed from Edward Mortenson, the man originally named as Norma’s father; and it also contains the word ‘morte’, meaning death. Furthermore, his nickname, ‘Dr M’, recalls the fictional killer, Dr Mabuse.

Of the many suspects in the Black Dahlia investigation, at least nine were surgeons. Elizabeth Short’s body was found naked, sliced at the waist, lips slashed like a clown’s. Her body was drained of blood and she had been ‘posed’ with her hands over her head.

There is no direct testimony from ‘Dr M’ in Oates’ story. Keinhardt  takes on a pimp’s role when he allows Dr M to spy on his photo sessions. Dr M tells him that Betty is a ‘black-haired vixen’, whereas Norma Jeane is ‘like an angel in heaven.’

And yet it is Betty whom Dr M asks for a date. Like KK, she considers him a ‘gentleman’. He asks her to bring Norma Jeane along, but of course, she doesn’t. After Betty’s murder, KK shrugs off his culpability in leading her to Dr M: ‘this is the foundation of Civilisation.’

Looking back, Marilyn compares Betty’s posthumous notoriety to her own, relentless fame: ‘Reporters & photographers like K.K. – cruelty enters their veins, like a parasite – they are not “human” any longer in their pursuit of prey.’ Whereas Betty’s youthful dreams of stardom are frozen in time, Norma will endure both fulfilment, and heartbreak:

Well – this is true! So many of us yearning for this “break” – which will make the sadness of our lives fade, we think – like shadows on a wall when the sun comes out.

& we will think then Now the sadness of my life is forgotten. Now – there will be a new life.

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