To novelist Roderick Thorp, Los Angeles is a smog-wrapped can of worms.
It's a city where murder, mayhem, malice, avarice, dark conspiracies and justifiable paranoia are as common as freeway gridlock.
At least that's the impression created by Thorp's latest novel, "Rainbow Drive" (Summit: $18.95), an "urban thriller" about law enforcement, drugs, wealth, show business and rampant corruption in Los Angeles, released this September. It's a grim portrait that echoes both the hard-boiled detective fiction of 40 years ago and the turn-of-the-century muckraking novel.
Thorp--probably best known for "The Detective," a novel he wrote 20 years ago that sold 3 million copies worldwide and became a movie starring Frank Sinatra--reinforced that impression the other day.
Built on Scams
"The history of Los Angeles is that this city has been built on one scam after another," Thorp declared, noting that some early residents were, in effect, drafted to be Southern Californians. "There was a time when you could take the train from Kansas City to Los Angeles for a dollar. Right, yeah. And to get back cost $300. So you were here, brother, whether you wanted to be or not. . . . There has always been fraud and deception in Los Angeles. Like oregano and basil in Italian cooking. . . ."
The 50-year-old writer talked about his work and the city during an interview at a noisy San Fernando Valley coffee shop where he said he often meets some of his buddies--ex-federal agents and a "wireman" or telephone tapper who keeps him up to date on the fine art of bugging.
As he took knife and fork to bacon and eggs, Thorp described a personal vision of Los Angeles as a sort of Petrie dish for the squiggly side of human nature. In his opinion, it is a place where drugs are sold on streets within "a golf shot" of police stations, real estate scams form the background of many municipal public works projects and much of the populace is stoned, twisted by greed or just plain evil.
Based on Articles
"Rainbow Drive" is partly the outgrowth of a series of newspaper articles he wrote several years ago about the illegal drug business here, Thorp said. The novel centers around the efforts of a Hollywood homicide detective to solve a cocaine-related, blunt-instrument multiple murder committed in a Laurel Canyon house. The plot is complicated and most of the time it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
It's also hard for any of the novel's characters to make a move without someone knowing. The book is a catalogue of eavesdropping techniques, including infrared listening devices and concealable TV cameras. In fact, the advanced electronics in the novel make a telephone tap seem like a quaint relic.
It may be some comfort to readers that Thorp doesn't think Los Angeles is the only U.S. city without a good-conduct rating.
"We have stumbled into a period in American history in which corruption is pandemic, it's everywhere," he declared.
The Novel as Muckraker
"Novel means the news. So if I'm writing a novel about police having their dukes in the tambourine as far as the coke trade is concerned, that's on the front pages across America. . . . I take the novel to be part of the real world. All novels have some element that pertains to muckraking. Dickens' novels were about the poor in London. Even Jane Austen, who I take to be the inventor of the modern novel, was making a comment about the society in which she lived in 'Pride and Prejudice.' A novel without that content probably is not much of a novel."
Furthermore, Thorp argued, a novel may be more effective than literal truth in portraying the seamy side of neighborhoods like Rainbow Drive. In nonfiction "you've got to prove what you say and still you might not be as persuasive as you could be in a work of fiction," he said.
Ideally, Thorp would like his book to "open a debate, a discussion, get some people who have the power to change things to begin to reorganize themselves about how things are done in this city." He added, "I think the book's going to ruffle some feathers and we'll see what happens from there."
In the war on drugs, Thorp apparently is a hard-liner. "Throwing billions (of government money) on the fire isn't going to help," he said. "You're going to have to punish dealers and smugglers very severely, maybe with extreme prejudice as they used to say in Vietnam. But there's no sign that America does want it to stop, no real sign at all."
Thorp, who described himself as "a seat-of-the-pants writer" who doesn't bother with charting out his intricate plots, said he soaked up some of the atmosphere for "Rainbow Drive" during a one-day stint with detectives here several years ago. But he learned most of what he knows about sleuthing in his youth.