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21 May 2015

Ghettoside is a bold, humane study of Los Angeles’ black homicide epidemic

Ryan Gattis reviews two books on the Los Angeles police – and finds a city plagued by a national problem.

By Ryan Gattis

Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic
Jill Leovy
Bodley Head, 366pp, £16.99

LAPD ’53
James Ellroy and Los Angeles Police Museum
Abrams Image, 208pp, £15.99

The introduction to James Ellroy’s new book, LAPD ’53, is preoccupied with Then and Now. Each is italicised and stuffed into sentences with the capital letters intact. Again and again, he cannot help but compare the present to 1953 and find it wanting: “My city – unrecognisable Now, longed for as it was Then.”

It is within this nostalgic space that Ellroy seeks to position this curated selection of crime-scene photography from the archives of the Los Angeles Police Museum (compiled by Glynn Martin, the museum’s executive director). And yet, for a book seemingly so rooted in historical fact, it takes a fast turn towards the absurd. “Dig this, fuckers – I’ve personally observed every crime scene depicted in this book,” Ellroy claims (emphasis his own). “I was there when those flaming flashbulbs popped. That’s why my coruscating opinions carry so much weight . . . My superpowers have metamorphosed into magical memory.”

These claims are so obviously groundless that one wonders why Ellroy even advances such an idea – for what could possibly be gained by it? Yet this idea of magical memory persists throughout the book, and does more to service the author’s ego than to lend weight, fact and humanity to the photos and history presented in it. LAPD ’53 cannot help but exist in the uncomfortable space between fiction and fact.

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At best, this is a beautifully designed book, on arguably the most important civic police body in the United States of America, which functions as an expression of “the right-wing absurdist world-view” prevalent within the LAPD. Of these pictures of the dead, Ellroy writes: “Death and yuks a heartbeat apart. You’ve gotta look and you’ve gotta laff.”

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Perhaps, in 1953, if one were white and male, one could. Now, in the 21st century, the images are freighted with historical context and legacy, and the notion is difficult to swallow (which the narrator predicts, though that doesn’t excuse him). We are not yet 20 years removed from the LAPD’s Rampart scandal of the late 1990s, in which police officers stole cocaine, masterminded bank heists and shot and framed civilians – resulting in more than 100 overturned convictions, 140 civil suits against LA and up to $125m in settlements paid out by the city. (Ellroy is certainly aware of this; he wrote a screenplay about it.) By these markers, it remains the worst police scandal in world history. Perhaps, in the light of such damning events, it is much easier to focus on and fetishise the past instead, especially one captured in stark black and white.

Taken at face value, LAPD ’53 is a manic ride through a series of macabre postwar-era crimes in Los Angeles. Perhaps the most famous case featured in the book is the Mabel Monahan murder (perpetrated by two mask-wearing men and a woman named Barbara Graham), which inspired the film I Want to Live!. There’s more, though: vandalism and burglary at a high-end women’s store that left naked mannequins in its wake, a domestic murder in Watts showing Clara Mae Miller with her throat slit, a “wino” named Jesús Fernández Muñoz who dropped 50 feet off the Aliso Street Bridge to his resting place in the concrete LA River basin below.

And yet, Ellroy himself never seems overly concerned with penetrating to the human heart of the crimes. It seems he would rather riff on them, using gallows humour that seeks to blur the line between then and now. He likens two corpses from 1953 to contemporary figures, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barack Obama, seemingly without purpose or reason. Such ­literary stunts smack of NHI, one of the “old unwritten” codes of the LAPD that Jill Leovy mentions in her book, Ghettoside: “No Human Involved”.

Here, Ellroy is less concerned with humanity than with style, specifically his own style: the mash-up madness composed equally of his loves of bebop, film noir and alliteration and his own fanatical support of William “Whiskey Bill” Parker, the LAPD chief at the time. His main character in this book isn’t actually the police department, Parker, or even the people in the photos – it is Ellroy himself at five years old, and that is the greatest letdown of the work.

Instead of concerning itself with the hows and whys of police procedure in that era – or an exploration of the ways in which WWII influenced crime and criminals for years to come – LAPD ’53 is the author’s paean to his own warped view of the city, one in which he claims to have done heroin, partied with jazz greats and picked up film noir stars, among other things, all while an infant. “Five-year-old Ellroy is there . . . I’ve got a spike in my arm, orbiting on the big ‘H’, I knew I’d write the text for this book one day, so I’ve got my voyeur’s cap on.”

This last part feels true, because there is so much of the voyeur present in this prose, a narrator more interested in his own take – perhaps his own pleasure – than the pain and suffering that led to the ends of the victims in here, dead on floors or hanging from ropes. In Ellroy’s world, these people deserve little sympathy (“NO EXIT!!!!!” and “The wages of sin are death!” are refrains throughout). The photos were chosen to be memorialised with his prose, but there is something empty at the heart of such an endeavour that prizes the author’s own obtuse magical memory, and not the victims’ stories, well told.

In sharp contrast, Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic is simply one of the finest books ever written about crime in LA – and crime in America, for that matter. Not only does it explore the human stories behind shocking crime statistics, it seeks to demystify them, find patterns, and explain the “plague of murders among black men” in the US, where this oft-demonised demographic makes up “6 per cent of the country’s population, but nearly 40 per cent of those murdered”.

Ghettoside not only strips away misconceptions about homicide and how it occurs in the most vulnerable parts of America; it also makes explosive claims: “Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder.” Leovy backs up such statements with a one-two punch of narrative power and sure-handed, logical persuasiveness. What sets this work of non-fiction apart from its true-crime counterparts is its keen concern not only for depth and breadth, but its tremendously touching glimpses into the overwhelming human cost of such violence.

Certainly, the statistics are as ­astonishing as they are detailed, but the book does not rest its case merely on numbers or on its well-researched notes section; it goes further, providing the narrative of a crime committed, solved and punished. For Ghettoside is also the story of the 2007 murder of Bryant Tennelle, the 18-year-old son of an LAPD detective. Leovy covers the investigation by a group of committed, hard-working detectives, including John Skaggs, and the eventual prosecution.

Its prose is tight and unsparing, presenting the reader with a hard look at the lasting pain caused by the young man’s death, within his family and among friends and neighbours. “All of them spoke as if they still saw an image hovering somewhere just beyond their field of vision – that image of Bryant, his head blown open, dying on the grass before their eyes.”

Throughout her book, Leovy makes it clear time and again that there are two sides to the city of Los Angeles. There is the prosperous side that has no knowledge of the ghetto, or wish to know about it, beyond the entertainment or spectacle (rap ­music, films) spawned from it. Then there is the other side, the ghettoside: an invisibly walled city within the city, a repository of pain, murder and psychic consequences for those who survive the dead.

The term captured the situation nicely, mixing geography and status within the hustler’s poetic precision and perverse conceit. It was both a place and a predicament, and gave a name to that other-worldly seclusion that all the violent black pockets of the county had in common . . .

The people who live between these invisible walls are the ones for whom Ellroy should be shouting, “NO EXIT!!!!!” They are certainly the only ones in either book for whom the phrase carries the most crushing kind of truth, as Leovy lays out the daily ­difficulties for those who must live with the community-destroying consequences of unsolved murders in Watts and South Los Angeles.

Read together, these books depict two sides of the iconic city, and each manages a measure of truth about Los Angeles in its own way. LAPD ’53 exists as retrospective fantasy (it features an overly stylised take on the city-that-doesn’t-quite-exist and that-may-never-have-existed): Ghettoside presents the bold, corrosive facts of life for LA’s poorest and most preyed-upon residents, making it entirely clear that this murder epidemic isn’t only a city problem, nor even a state problem, but national.

One book is alternately callous and manic in its dated claims that things were much “better” in 1953 – a time when the United States was still segregated – and expressions of how much the author wishes social circumstances were the same now; the other achieves greatness through its ability to be both timely and timeless. Ghettoside is an insightful and humane study of one of America’s greatest ongoing failures, a book that manages to be hopeful and sincere in its aim to provide not just talking points, but also potential solutions to the plague.

Ryan Gattis’s novel about the 1992 LA riots, “All Involved”, is published by Picador