Books - A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age

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A captivating chronicle of how the City of Angels lost its soul

Los Angeles was the fastest growing city in the world, mad with oil fever, get-rich-quick schemes, celebrity scandals, and religious fervor. It was also rife with organized crime, with a mayor in the pocket of the syndicates and a DA taking bribes to throw trials. In A Bright and Guilty Place, Richard Rayner narrates the entwined lives of two men, Dave Clark and Leslie White, who were caught up in the crimes, murders, and swindles of the day. Over a few transformative years, as the boom times shaded into the Depression, the adventures of Clark and White would inspire pulp fiction and replace L.A.’s reckless optimism with a new cynicism. Together, theirs is the tale of how the city of sunshine got noir.

When A Bright and Guilty Place begins, Leslie White is a naïve young photographer who lands a job as a crime-scene investigator in the L.A. district attorney’s office. There he meets Dave Clark, a young, movie-star handsome lawyer and a rising star prosecutor with big ambitions. The cases they tried were some of the first “trials of the century,” starring dark-hearted oil barons, sexually perverse starlets, and hookers with hearts of gold. Los Angeles was in the grip of organized crime, and White was dismayed to see that only the innocent paid while the powerful walked free. But Clark was entranced by L.A.’s dangerous lures and lived the high life, marrying a beautiful woman, wearing custom-made suits, yachting with the rich and powerful, and jaunting off to Mexico for gambling and girls. In a shocking twist, when Charlie Crawford, the Al Capone of L.A., was found dead, the chief suspect was none other than golden boy Dave Clark.

A Bright and Guilty Place is narrative nonfiction at its most gripping. Key to the tale are the story of the theft of water from the Owens River Valley that let L.A grow; the Teapot Dome scandal that brought shame to President Harding; and the emergence of crime writers like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, who helped mythologize L.A. In Rayner’s hands, the ballad of Dave Clark is the story of the coming of age of a great American city.

Book Description
A captivating chronicle of how the City of Angels lost its soul.

Los Angeles was the fastest growing city in the world, mad with oil fever, get-rich-quick schemes, celebrity scandals, and religious fervor. It was also rife with organized crime, with a mayor in the pocket of the syndicates and a DA taking bribes to throw trials. In A Bright and Guilty Place, Richard Rayner narrates the entwined lives of two men, Dave Clark and Leslie White, who were caught up in the crimes, murders, and swindles of the day. Over a few transformative years, as the boom times shaded into the Depression, the adventures of Clark and White would inspire pulp fiction and replace L.A.’s reckless optimism with a new cynicism. Together, theirs is the tale of how the city of sunshine got noir.

When A Bright and Guilty Place begins, Leslie White is a naïve young photographer who lands a job as a crime-scene investigator in the L.A. district attorney’s office. There he meets Dave Clark, a young, movie-star handsome lawyer and a rising star prosecutor with big ambitions. The cases they tried were some of the first "trials of the century," starring dark-hearted oil barons, sexually perverse starlets, and hookers with hearts of gold. Los Angeles was in the grip of organized crime, and White was dismayed to see that only the innocent paid while the powerful walked free. But Clark was entranced by L.A.’s dangerous lures and lived the high life, marrying a beautiful woman, wearing custom-made suits, yachting with the rich and powerful, and jaunting off to Mexico for gambling and girls. In a shocking twist, when Charlie Crawford, the Al Capone of L.A., was found dead, the chief suspect was none other than golden boy Dave Clark.

A Bright and Guilty Place is narrative nonfiction at its most gripping. Key to the tale are the story of the theft of water from the Owens River Valley that let L.A. grow; the Teapot Dome scandal that brought shame to President Harding; and the emergence of crime writers like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, who helped mythologize L.A. In Rayner’s hands, the ballad of Dave Clark is the story of the coming of age of a great American city.


Richard Rayner on A Bright and Guilty Place

I’ve written eight books now—both fiction and non-fiction—and in so far as my writing career has had a constant, it’s been California in general, and Los Angeles in particular. My first novel, Los Angeles Without a Map, published back in 1988, was about an English guy’s love affair with a Playboy bunny. It was later turned into the least-famous film ever to feature Johnny Depp. I’d grown up in the north of England and the material in that book came out of visits I’d made to the city as a journalist. Later, in 1991, I came to live in L.A. with the woman who became my wife (she’s wonderful, and not a Playboy bunny). We intended to stay for six months. Now 18 years have passed. Our kids were born in Santa Monica Hospital and we’re still here, stuck it sometimes seems, resident aliens in a city I now know intimately well and still don’t quite understand. Not in terms of its effect on me, anyway.

I reported on the Rodney King riots for the literary magazine Granta, on the Northridge earthquake for the U.K. Guardian, on various movie stars for the New Yorker, and on the LAPD for the New York Times magazine. Riding around town in the back of black and whites, I saw cops do brave and sometimes stupid things. A couple of murders happened smack in front of my eyes, and I came to see Los Angeles in a different way, as a place where the light and dark tones of life are always co-mingled, sometimes comically, sometimes tragically. This texture of feeling was always associated for me with the genre known as ‘noir’, crime stories that had their roots, I came to learn, not only in the fiction and film of the 1930s and 1940s (writers like Raymond Chandler, movies such as Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep—each of them particular to Southern California) but in the true crime stories that preceded them, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the golden era of American tabloid journalism.

So I started poking around, doing research about true crime in L.A. in the pre-WW2 era. This involved lots of interviews, lots of trips to the great research libraries at UCLA and USC and the photo archive of the main Los Angeles Public Library, the basement of which is like a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouse, filled with historical goodies.

Various stories and characters began to obsess me. One such story concerned Leslie White, a young photographer from Ventura County who came to Los Angeles after the St. Francis Dam disaster in 1928 and got a job as a forensics investigator (think early CSI) with the District Attorney’s office. White worked on many of the big cases of the era (including the infamous, and unsolved Doheny mansion murder/suicide) and came to see that the DA’s office was a part of the civic corruption it was supposed to be fighting; so he used his experiences and turned himself into a pulp fiction writer in the early 1930s, publishing in Black Mask and elsewhere. He knew, and influenced, Raymond Chandler.

Some tale. But not as good as that of David H. Clark (known as "Debonair Dave"), a heroic flyer in WW1 and graduate of USC law who also went to work for the DA’s office, but as a prosecutor. Clark nailed mobsters and argued the case that wrecked the career of Clara Bow (then the world’s biggest movie star). Clark had a beautiful wife and an actor’s glamour. Then he himself, in 1931, was put on trial for murder, accused of rubbing out one Charlie Crawford, the then head of the Los Angeles underworld. Only in L.A.!

The Clark case was as sensational, and as headline-grabbing, in its day, as that which, sixty years later, featured O.J. Simpson. And when I discovered that Leslie White had known Dave Clark, and had indeed been called upon to testify against his friend, I realized I might have the spine of a fascinating book. Why had Clark—seemingly a beacon of rectitude—been sucked to the dark side? His story reminded me of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, except, of course, it was true.

At the heart of A Bright and Guilty Place, then, are the intertwined destinies of these two men, White and Clark, one a success in his own quirky way, the other propelled towards self-destruction and tragedy. I believe, too, that the book gives a portrait of a city in tumult, in the agonising throes—as the boom years of the 1920s turn to the Great Depression—of discovering an identity that will always be bound up with the types of mood and crime that A Bright and Guilty Place evokes. Los Angeles isn’t just dark, or light—it’s always both at the same time. —Richard Rayner

(Photo © Robert Yager)

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Book information

Release Date (USA): 2009-06-23
Release Date (UK):
Author: Richard Rayner
Publisher: Doubleday

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