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Epilogue to a writer's noir life

The publishing world left Mercedes Lambert for dead. Her work gets a second chance.

August 05, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Like a lot of noir novels, the career of Douglas Anne Munson, a hard-boiled Los Angeles writer who once seemed like one of the city's bright new lights, just gets murkier and more confusing the closer you look.

Munson wrote a trilogy of novels in the '90s, the first of which was the celebrated "Dogtown," set largely on the hard streets of Pico-Union.

Despite the name, she wasn't a man.

And despite her exotic-sounding pen name -- Mercedes Lambert -- she was a white Southerner who'd had a hard-knocks childhood.

Despite the author bio on the "Dogtown" book jacket, she didn't live in Montebello and didn't have two kids.

And despite her early success that included rave reviews and anchoring a sizable magazine article on L.A.'s then-nascent noir revival, she never quite arrived as a writer.

In fact, after some early success, she spiraled downward when the conclusion to her trilogy was rejected by her publisher. Health problems, severe depression, a stint of homelessness in Santa Monica, an escape to Prague and death by cancer in 2003 followed.

Now, the novel that served as the beginning of the end, "Ghosttown," is being published by Five Star, a small press in Waterville, Maine, next week, thanks to the efforts of literary friends and supporters.

Her advocates describe her as a potentially major figure, ahead of her time for her hard-bitten female protagonists and her portrayal of multicultural L.A. in love and squalor. Jonathan Kellerman calls the book "one of the most evocative L.A. crime novels ever written," and such writers as Hubert Selby Jr., Kate Braverman and Carolyn See championed her early work.

The first two books in the trilogy, long out of print, will be reissued next spring by Stark House, with an introduction by acclaimed Galway, Ireland, detective writer Ken Bruen.

It's hard not to read the tale of her life as that of a gifted artist, a literary martyr, destroyed by a heartless publishing establishment. But like a Raymond Chandler plot, it's not really that simple.

"She wrote mystery novels," said Michael Connelly, who never knew Munson but called her first novel, "El Niño," and the bruised idealism of its protagonist, a major influence on his work. "But she was probably the biggest mystery of all."

Munson, who came to L.A. after a difficult, itinerant childhood in the South, attended UCLA law school and worked as a court-appointed lawyer representing troubled families. By the early '80s, she got serious about writing.

"At that point a little bit of a legend preceded her," said Lucas Crown, an old friend who became her literary executor. "There was something very adventur- ous about her; she did things her own way."

Novelist John Rechy still remembers his first impression of when Munson came to his private writing workshop around that time. "When you saw her you thought, 'Here is a tough chick,' " recalls the "City of Night" author, who led Munson in his workshops for more than a decade. "But immediately the vulnerability was clear."

Though she was well liked in class, she was painfully soft-spoken and so fragile her hands would tremble.

"She changed her look very often," Rechy recalled. "She was a redhead, then very blond, very short, then full and dark. When she changed her name, her age changed."

In some pictures from this period, she looked like a busty '40s femme fatale. In others, she could've been a member of the Pretenders. As old friends of hers gathered at a recent party for "Ghosttown's" publication and shared recollections about her, Rechy was struck by "the contradictions of Douglas."

Crown recalls her as charismatic but "haunted" by disapproving, perhaps abusive parents and "by her own demons."

Because she continued working as a lawyer and kept to herself, most readers knew her only through her books, first as Munson, for 1990's legal thriller "El Niño" -- later, and confusingly, issued in paperback as "Hostile Witness" -- and then as Lambert, author of "Dogtown" and 1996's Koreatown-set "Soultown."

"Los Angeles is the greatest city in the world for crime fiction because of all the conflicts and potential for conflict," Munson told Los Angeles magazine around the publication of "Soultown."

"We start out on a precarious footing, trembling on the brink of natural disaster. Then we take hundreds of thousands of people who didn't get along in their country of origin, add to that an entrenched, angry and frightened group of people who don't want them here, throw in a Santa Ana, a few random insane murderers and pedophiles and then turn the whole thing over to studio executives and the LAPD."

Los Angeles writer Denise Hamilton remembers experiencing these books like a hit to the gut. The writing was "so raw and visceral, dark and filled with excess and violence," said Hamilton, whose most recent mystery novel is "Prisoner of Memory." "It had a lot of child abuse. I'd never read anything like it."

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