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BOOK REVIEW : TO WRITE IN L.A.

A story to find on every street

With a city so sprawling, imagine the secrets Angelenos can tell

April 22, 2012|Robert Crais | Crais is the author of many books in his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series, including "The Sentry," "The Last Detective," "The First Rule" and "L.A. Requiem." His new novel is "Taken."
  • Crime novelist Robert Crais in 2007.
Crime novelist Robert Crais in 2007. (Ulf Andersen, Getty Images )

The Los Angeles Times determined we have 114 separate and distinct neighborhoods here in Los Angeles. The city has posted several hundred blue signs naming far more. L.A. is a mash-up of uncountable, diverse neighborhoods spread over 465 square miles; hard and soft, painted in colors from concrete gray and security bar black to putting lawn green and jacaranda snowfall purple; beautiful, mysterious, dangerous, welcoming neighborhoods, soundtracked by the music of more languages than you or I or even the Los Angeles Times can count.

In "The Long Goodbye," Raymond Chandler (speaking as Philip Marlowe) described Los Angeles as a city "no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is."

Meaning, L.A. is a city unique to each of us as well as a city we all create together.

Climb to the top of the Hollywood sign or gaze from the skyview seats above home plate at Dodger Stadium or hoist yourself onto the bench atop Runyon Canyon, and the City of Angels spreads her wings to the horizon. The hundreds of neighborhoods melt into a gently rolling forest dotted by skyscraper mountains where even the freeways vanish. This towering view of Los Angeles gives us the great, vast forest perspective in which we are all of one kind (Angelenos) and of one place (Los Angeles), but as with a forest covering a distant mountain, the individual trees -- our neighborhoods -- are invisible. If we want to know the rich flavors of K-town and Little Ethiopia, WeHo and Chinatown, Van Nuys and Compton, Brentwood, Boyle Heights and all the others, we need to leave the high ground and move into the trees.

As with any forest, we have our share of predators. Murderers, gangs, thieves, maniacs -- plenty of grist for my crime writer's mill, but these things can be found anywhere. To me, the best stories explore what it is to be human, and transcend neighborhood boundaries -- an undocumented mother's fear when her daughter goes missing, an immigrant father's hope his children will have a better life, the friendship between Elvis Cole and Joe Pike that reflects the loyalty and love we all want to share.

To learn what joins us, we must take the city in our arms and gaze into the angel's eyes. I try to see those things we share, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, good and bad. These are the stories to which we can all relate and are the stories I want to tell. At the same time, I want to know our differences, because they are the flavors that make our city the most rewarding and our lives so interesting.

My challenge, then, is to see both near and far without losing either perspective. Not so easy in a city as large and complex as Los Angeles, but the struggle is worth it.

Where a city can define a people, by turn the people who live there by choice or circumstance also define that city, and it is these choices and circumstances I write about. What we risk, how far we go, how much we sacrifice. Will we be lost to the darkness or shine through it?

As Chandler wrote, perhaps we each see our city from the perspective of our own private score, but what seems undeniable to me -- private scores aside -- is the hope that brings so many to Los Angeles, and the opportunities they seek here. Whatever the scale of our dreams, from the glitz-and-glam dream of stardom to the simple good hope of work and a better life, this place we call home is a beacon of light. The stories are worth telling.

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Robert Crais at the Festival of Books

Event: Conversation with Times Film Critic Kenneth Turan

When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Bing Theater on the USC campus

For more information: http://events.latimes.comfestivalofbooks

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