Monday, June 24, 2013

The Story Behind the Story:
“Death Was in the Blood,” by Linda L. Richards

(Editor’s note: This 43rd entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Linda L. Richards, an author and resident of British Columbia, Canada, who also serves as the editor of January Magazine and contributes frequently to The Rap Sheet. In the essay below, she writes about Death Was in the Blood, her new, third novel in a succession of historical mysteries set in Los Angeles. It follows 2008’s Death Was the Other Woman and 2009’s Death Was in the Picture.)

I don’t remember participating in the creation of Kitty Pangborn.

I’ve talked about this before.

I was in a period of reading a great deal of classic noir fiction. More than my share. And amid all the drinking and testosterone-informed shenanigans, I began to see her there, at the edge of things. A voice of sense and sanity (a feminine one, of course) in a rough-edged world peopled by men who’d seen too much and had paid too high a cost in a war years past--one they still carried around with them, emblazoned on their souls.

Men like that, they’re good men, but broken sometimes. It can be as true now as it was then. We’re luckier now, at least some of the time. We have words for things; acronyms even. And we know that post-traumatic stress syndrome can do funny things to a soldier’s mind and heart. But during the first half of the 20th century? They didn’t have words for such problems back then. “He’s busted up inside,” someone might say. Or, “You mean that Theroux boy? He ain’t been right since he came back. There’s nothin’ wrong with him, you understand. But he ain’t been right at all.”

These men--these big-hearted yet shadowy and broken men--loom large in the work of some of my favorite wordsmiths. Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon, et al.) is racing from demons, I’m sure of it. We don’t really know that. Hammett never says, but one can imagine that Sam Spade’s story was influenced at least in part by Hammett’s own. Hammett had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1918 and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps until he contracted Spanish Flu and then later tuberculosis. Hammett lost his health to the military, and it seems entirely possible he lost more than that. And certainly, the detectives he later wrote about were broken in ways the author never clearly defined, but that we could sense, all the same. Lost boys, in a way. Lost in distant lands and never to find their way back, even when they made it all the way home.

So during all of this noir reading, I began to see that it was not possible for the lost boys peopling that field of fiction to actually be accomplishing what they seemed to be accomplishing. The drinking they were managing all on their own. The occasional womanizing, sure, they were doing all right with that. But, as people, it often seemed they were so shattered, it was unlikely they could keep businesses together. Yet there it was, in tale after tale: their name on the door. Phones ringing. Clients more or less standing in line.

When they were out of the office, though--drinking, or womanizing, or even out on a case--who was looking after things then? And who was keeping it all together, just running the day-to-day business?

I don’t even remembering what wild and crazy hat I pulled Katherine “Kitty” Pangborn out of. The name, I mean. And the girl, as well. Suddenly, she was just standing there, tidy threadbare office suit, sensible shoes, and all. I know she was somewhat inspired by Spade’s capable secretary, Effie Perrine. Effie, whom you had the feeling was young and even lovely, yet whose sister-like relationship with Sam was refreshingly free of that often-all-too-tiresome frisson that can muddy up the clearest noir waters.

Although the latest Kitty Pangborn novel, Death Was in the Blood, stands alone (as all my series books have done) and doesn’t rely on readers having enjoyed the books in sequence, I think it is a darker read than those that have gone before. Kitty herself is in a darker place. No longer just happy to have found a way to keep a roof over her head during America’s Great Depression, she’s thinking about her life and about what might have been, and discovering she’s not entirely happy with the result. For me, that’s one of the things that defines Death Was in the Blood most sharply. Meeting the beautiful and privileged client Flora Woodruff, an aristocratic young woman about Kitty’s own age, forces Kitty to examine her own life and the odd turns it’s taken since her father’s suicide led her to find a job working with Los Angeles private eye Dexter J. Theroux.

* * *

A lot of the action in Death Was in the Blood takes place against preparations for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. That was, in many ways, a ground-breaking Olympics. It took place at the height of the Depression and a number of countries pulled out because they simply couldn’t afford to send their teams on such a big trip. Less than half the number of participants of the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam competed in L.A. in 1932.

That competition in Los Angeles marked the first time in history that an Olympic village was built to house the athletes. It was apparently really fantastic, with dining halls and entertainment centers and even a screening room where the athletes could watch moving pictures of their performances from the day. (And nobody had iPhones, so it was a pretty big deal.) Movie stars would drop by every night and give impromptu shows (so L.A.!), but it was all for the men. The women athletes were housed in a hotel on Wilshire Boulevard and got left out of all the fun--though, in fairness, it should be said that 1,206 men competed, compared with only 126 women.

So all of this is known absolutely: we have first-hand accounts, we have photos and even film. What we don’t know exactly is where this village was, because it was dismantled right after the Olympics concluded and, near as anyone can tell, beyond one structure that ended up--and still stands--at the police academy in Elysian Park, the rest of that trailblazing 1932 Olympic village is gone without a trace.

(Left) Author Linda L. Richards

There is agreement that the village was located in the Baldwin Hills, but it might have been in the Blair Hills, an area that’s now actually part of Culver City. Or it might have been near Crenshaw and Vernon in the View Park area and, according to the Baldwin Hills Park Web site, “One account places the village in the Crenshaw or Angeles Mesa district, in the hills to the west of Crenshaw Boulevard south of Vernon Avenue. The roads Olympiad Drive and Athenian Way in this area commemorate its history.”

From that same source:
The village comprised between 500 and more than 600 two-room dwellings and included post and telegraph offices, an amphitheater, a hospital, a fire department, and a bank. The village was built on between 250 and 331 acres that was loaned by the heirs of the estate of Lucky Baldwin. The buildings were removed after the games.
This account is pretty consistent with what I found in other sources: references to developer and stock market speculator Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, who died in 1909 but whose fortune--by the early 1930s--was still largely intact. Mentions of the Olympic village being constructed at great cost during the Depression, then mysteriously disappearing right after the games.

But there are enough things not mentioned, or merely hinted at, that if you’re of a certain disposition, your mind fills in the blanks. The construction of a whole village during the Depression--one that needed to look good, yet not be required to stand the test of any significant amount of time? That would have been a plum contract. A multi-million-dollar contract, even in the dollars of the day. One worth killing over? Well, just wait and see.

1 comment:

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Thanks for that. By the way, Pangborn, the name, besides being associated with Edgar Pangborn, the fantasy novelist, was the name given to Stephen King's sheriff in both THE DARK HALF and NEEDFUL THINGS.

The Pangborns and the Pangburns are from the same family, going back to England, with a rich legacy of both scholars and cads.