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Diverse realities of mysteries

A new generation of authors gives the genre a broader viewpoint.

July 05, 2006|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

In the mystery novels of Los Angeles author Paula L. Woods, black police Det. Charlotte Justice is haunted by history. She can't drive through Hancock Park without recalling that when Nat King Cole broke the racial barrier and moved into one of its mansions, somebody burned a cross on his lawn.

"Maybe she's trapped by the past because she sees the past in the present, " Woods said. "She can remember the stories of Nat King Cole and the cross-burning that she heard as a kid. She's an oracle, in a way: She sees the present and the past, and in some ways, foretells L.A.'s future."

Woods lives in this future and is a keen observer of the ethnic and cultural divides that preoccupy her protagonist. She has listened to real-life stories of Los Angeles policewomen who have grappled with the kind of discrimination her fictional Det. Justice battles within her own department. At a family funeral, Woods' mother met a light-skinned relative who was hiding her African roots in the white world that she moved in -- inspiring a pivotal plot twist that ruins a character in Woods' new mystery, "Strange Bedfellows."

"It's really a form of self-denial," said Woods, a woman of elegance and style who says she was once mistaken for Angela Davis, as she drove by Frank Lloyd Wright's Maya Revival masterpiece in the Hollywood Hills -- betraying her predilection for the haute architecture that looms above the gritty real-life crime scenes where she researches her murder mysteries. "And here's a woman who really suffers from it. It destroys her life."

The accidental investigator of Naomi Hirahara's mysteries, Mas Arai, is a Japanese gardener who conceals his own psychic mystery, as a survivor of Hiroshima. Hirahara too draws on personal history: Her father lived through the atomic bombing. She writes nonfiction on the history of Japanese gardening in California -- a vocation marred by the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"Some drivers passing my father tending someone's lawn and garden may have thought nothing of him, but in fact he had survived and witnessed one of the horrific events of the 20th century," said Hirahara, whose third Mas Arai mystery, "Snakeskin Shamisen," is just out. "I wanted to give a voice to people like this."

American popular fiction was once densely populated with the social realism of writers like John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair. Today, these themes of social inequality have migrated to a new popular genre: crime and mystery, written by a new cast of ethnic and female authors who are transforming California's classic noir -- and winning readers who are interested in a lot more than crime fiction.

After bestselling author Walter Mosley published "Little Scarlet" -- set in the aftermath of the Watts riots -- "my agent said, 'What's the political issue in the next one?' " he said.

"At this point there are feminist, black, Japanese writers," he said. "And they think, 'Hey, I could tell this story in this genre. Certainly the people who have had critical success have spoken more to the social implications.' "

The protagonist of the new noir is still "the existentialist hero, someone standing up against corruption in society," Mosley said. But now "there's a critique not of bad people in society, but of society itself."

The new noir, Mosley said, is not a break from the past. Mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, who famously refused to testify during the anti-Communist witch hunting of the McCarthy era, "was extraordinarily political," Mosley said. "He was the guy who wouldn't name names. He went to prison."

Race has always figured in Los Angeles noir, even back in the days when Raymond Chandler imagined Philip Marlowe as a white knight who moved uneasily against a backdrop of nonwhite Angelenos in South-Central.

Instead, the writers are reinventing the classic, in the same way Missouri humorist Mark Twain's social criticism turned Mississippi River folk tales such as "Huckleberry Finn" into attacks on slavery and social ills, Mosley said.

Key to that transformation is a shift in point of view. Stories are told through the eyes of the anonymous people who lived in Chandler's backdrop: native Angelenos like Mosley's amateur sleuth, Easy Rawlins, an aspiring member of an emerging World War II-era black middle class who must navigate the minefield of race. Women too have evolved from the days when they were the lethally seductive props of noir -- treacherous pitfalls of a man's struggle for integrity. Now they are insiders, like Woods' Det. Justice -- who is as disturbed by the subtle and not-so-subtle hostility of her male colleagues as she is by the brutality of the crimes she must solve.

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