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Book Review: L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City by John Buntin

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L.A. Noir is part story of the early 20th century LAPD, part biography of two men situated on opposite ends of the law: William Parker and Mikey Cohen, the Police chief and the gangster. It is also the story of the struggle for the control of Los Angeles itself, presenting the City of Angels at the dawn of the 20th Century as a veritable cesspool of corruption enabled by an enfeebled police department which haplessly fell under various corrupting influences of whatever powers happened to be controlling the city. The outcome of this struggle for law and order in America’s most glamorous city was by no means certain; what was certain was that Los Angeles was too small for both Parker and Cohen. Sooner or latter, something, someone would have to give. The result of Parker’s battle for the soul of L.A. changed American policing and politics, culminating in the Watts riots.

Noir tells a big story, populated with memorable characters and memorable portrayals of the early 20th century Los Angeles. But it is not drama, despite what the author seems to claim in the prologue:

“For three decades, from the Great Depression to the Watts riots, Parker and Cohen — the policeman and the gangster — would engage in a struggle for power, first as lieutenants to older, more powerful men, then directly with each other, and finally with their own instincts and desires. . . . ”

Neither Parker nor Cohen actually came into personal conflict in a dramatic fashion. Rather, they represent organizations, patterns of thought and behavior that are in perceptual conflict. Both men, then, are symbolic of larger forces and processes. These processes are profound in their scope and go to the very heart of the history of California itself, a land of migrants seeking to escape the exhausted metropolitan centers like New York and Chicago.

One of such migrant characters was Bill Parker himself. He appears in that desolate landscape of corruption that was Los Angeles as a hero, the one man who was not only unusually smart, but also apparently incorruptible -— a Mr. Spock of law enforcement. His goal was simple enough —- to wrest the LAPD from corrupt influences so that the department could enforce the law —- but it was an arduous task because the enemies of law and order were everywhere and had plenty of money to spend. The LAPD of the era did not really “fight crime as much as manage it.”

It is hard to now appreciate the political realities of the early days of the 20th century Los Angeles, but Buntin does a great job reconstructing the major forces at work that shaped the city in the early years of the 20th century. Los Angeles of that era was a kind of last frontier in America, and its dream attracted thousands of migrants from all over the country, including the criminal element. It was also a violent place, with a staggering rate of homicide that approached that of Britain. Criminal enterprise was alive and well in the nation’s “white spot,” and the the city’s elite, lead by the publisher of the L.A. Times, Harry Chandler wanted to do something about it as a rising crime wave was becoming bad for the city’s image. But their cleanup efforts lead only to the unwitting establishment of the Parrot-Cryer Combination. It would take years for the Combination to be shattered, and then its absence would only create an opening for Mikey Cohen’s boss, Bugsy Siegel.

One of the ways in which Parker sought to advance his goal was to gain independence for the department from the various political influences that happened to have power in the city at a particular moment. His strategy involved amending the city charter to give the Chief of the LAPD greater protection from arbitrary removal from office by the Police Commission. But his plan proved to be flawed when Mayor Bowron succeeded in removing many officers without a single official complaint being filed and examined, as the charter required, in the wake of the Clifford Clinton affair. Bowron disliked having little control over the LAPD Chief and repeatedly sought to circumvent the charter protections. His method of choice was the illegal wiretap: he would confront the officer with the recordings and force a resignation —- the system painstakingly put in place by Parker was rendered wholly ineffective against Bowron’s methods. But it wouldn’t be until the post World War Two era that the LAPD would start to become a real police force.

After becoming chief, Parker hired veterans, rapidly increasing the professionalism of the force and its basic discipline. But there were problems. African-Americans were underrepresented, for one thing. And Parker himself was not without flaw. He embraced wiretapping and the breaking into premises to install the listening devices that went along with the policy of covert electronic surveillance. He was also unreceptive to the Black community’s criticisms of the LAPD and how it interacted with the African American population of the city. Parker, however, cannot be treated too harshly; he faced enormous challenges and met them head on. By the time he passed away, the LAPD was a much better police force than it had been when Parker joined it. And Mickey Cohen? He was brought down by the feds, who sent him away for tax evasion.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org
  • http://DamianDaily.wordpress.com Lisa Damian

    I appreciate how you describe one of individuals as “a Mr. Spock of law enforcement.” It provides a distinct image of a familiar character while cutting right to the point.