Monday, January 11, 2016

Urban Warfare and Free Books

When it was first released in hardcover last year, Ryan Gattis’ All Involved, his ambitious novel about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, was called “harrowing” by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, who went on to write:
Ignore the book’s pallid, generic title. The story that Mr. Gattis tells in his breakthrough novel is a high-octane speedball of a read: gritty, nerve-racking, sometimes excruciating in its violence and at the same time animated by a bone-deep understanding of its characters’ daily lives in a gang-ravaged neighborhood in Lynwood, South Central. It’s a neighborhood where walking down the wrong street at the wrong time can get you killed, where many families—who have at least one relative with gang ties—find themselves caught in a never-ending spiral of loss and revenge and retaliation.
Gattis’ publisher offers this more basic synopsis of the work:
At 3:15 p.m. on April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted three white Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with using excessive force to subdue a black man named Rodney King, and failed to reach a verdict on the same charges involving a fourth officer. Less than two hours later, the city exploded in violence that lasted six days. In nearly 121 hours, 53 lives were lost. But there were even more deaths unaccounted for: violence that occurred outside of active rioting sites by those who used the chaos to viciously settle old scores.

A gritty and cinematic work of fiction,
All Involved vividly re-creates this turbulent and terrifying time, set in a sliver of Los Angeles largely ignored by the media during the riots. Ryan Gattis tells 17 interconnected first-person narratives that paint a portrait of modern America itself—laying bare our history, our prejudices, and our complexities. With characters that capture the voices of gang members, firefighters, graffiti kids, and nurses caught up in these extraordinary circumstances, All Involved is a literary tour de force that catapults this edgy writer into the ranks of such legendary talents as Dennis Lehane and George V. Higgins.
Now you have the opportunity to decide for yourself how well Gattis (who apparently spent two-and-a-half years researching his subject) evokes the hostilities, fear, and humanity involved in those long-ago riots. His paperback publisher, Ecco, has kindly made available to The Rap Sheet three copies of All Involved, which we are intent on dispensing—free of charge—to our readers. All you need do to enter this first-of-the-year drawing is e-mail your name and postal address to And be sure to type “All Involved Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Monday, January 18. The three winners will be chosen completely at random, and their names listed on this page the following day.

Sorry, but this particular giveaway competition is open only residents of the United States.

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To further your interest in All Involved, we asked author-educator Gattis to identify five Los Angeles-set works of crime fiction that inspired his writing of this book. Here are his choices:

Farewell, My Lovely (1940), by Raymond Chandler
It is gut-wrenching having to choose just one Philip Marlowe book for a list like this, but needs must, and Anne Riordan puts this one over the top. She is my favorite character of Chandler’s besides the detective himself, and though the world has changed much since this novel was published in 1940, her lines would need little, if any, updating, to sit just as well in the 21st century. Beyond banter, the chief joy of Chandler’s writing for me is its texture. His precision with smells, sounds, and how things feel draws me in every time. All of Chandler’s writing evinces this style, but Farewell has stuck longer in my memory. The sequence where a drugged-up and discombobulated Marlowe frees himself from Dr. Sonderborg’s house is—sentence by sentence—some of the finest writing in the English language.

The Galton Case (1959), by Ross Macdonald
Although there’s no such thing as too much Lew Archer, The Galton Case stands as the perfected version of the type of plot that Macdonald wrote much of his life: where present crimes have deep roots in the past. Its turns are just right here, sharp and brutal: turning back on itself more often than a sidewinder slithering off for dinner. Perhaps I’m cheating a bit here, as it’s not a classic L.A. book; Macdonald certainly has other novels that are more like sniper shots at the soft spots of Los Angeles County (The Underground Man and The Chill, being two very good ones), and this one does range (to Nevada, as well as Michigan), but it never loses focus. Archer remains my favorite-ever detective in fiction, because he both sympathizes with and cares for those he’s trying to help, even if he never says it. I read somewhere that David Fincher’s production company bought the rights to this work. If anyone can adapt The Galton Case well, he can.

Little Scarlet (2004), by Walter Mosley
Easy Rawlins is a character every single reader on earth should read. It’s worth saying here that although I like 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress more as a novel, Little Scarlet has loftier goals, takes bigger risks, and as such, is a more important book—one that transcends genre and gives a sense of the hows, whys, and whats of the 1965 Watts Riots without once letting up on narrative drive. As a writer, I was greatly heartened by Mr. Mosley’s ability to spin a damn good mystery during the midst of chaos in one of the poorest areas of Los Angeles. It gave me guidance to tackle plotting a multi-voiced narrative set the 1992 riots myself. For too long L.A. was presented as the Great White Spot, those who did not fit in were excluded to the point of invisibility. The beauty of Los Angeles, though, not just now but throughout its history has been—and will always be—its diversity. Los Angeles is a world unto itself, and as far as I’m concerned, the more facets we can see and understand, particularly as a reader, the better.

The Tattooed Soldier (1998), by Héctor Tobar
It may never have been marketed as a crime book, but make no mistake: from premise to conclusion, this novel is only about one thing—murder. Similar to the Macdonald books, the present planning of this crime has deep roots in the past. True to the diversity of Los Angeles, though, these roots are buried in Guatemala, during the time of the death squads, and how one soldier took away Antonio Bernal’s whole life by killing his family. It is years later, in Los Angeles, that Antonio sees the man again, and sets about his revenge just as the 1992 riots begin. As a longtime Los Angeles Times reporter, Mr. Tobar knows this city by heart. His fiction fairly breathes it. If you’ve not read this one, do yourself a favor and delve into a story that tells a cardinal truth about Los Angeles as a city of immigrants, a place where old crimes can relocate, and wait years before demanding payback.

Snakeskin Shamisen (2006),
by Naomi Hirahara

The archetype of the Japanese gardener is one rooted in fact: many of the earliest Japanese immigrants who came to Los Angeles worked in what jobs they could find, whether fishing or gardening. The brilliance of Ms. Hirahara’s work is that she deeply humanizes this Southland archetype through a denture-wearing survivor of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Mas Arai. He’s an endearing detective, primarily because of his sourness and unexpected profession, and yet, the fact that he drives often for his work (from Altadena to Arcadia, Torrance, Gardena, and elsewhere) means he knows the city and its many faces. In Mas’ world, nearly everyone is too loud, few people are polite enough, and the past is most often too painful and best forgotten. He is a man of honor, however, and that makes him exemplary. It’s also worth saying that few writers capture food and its details as well as Ms. Hirahara does.

Honorable Mention:
Land of Shadows (2014), by Rachel Howzell Hall
I’ve only just finished reading this five days ago, and am still digesting its sweat-hot version of noir in South Los Angeles, but already it stands out to me as one of the best L.A. novels I’ve read in some while. Spending time in its pages reminded me that there’s a cropped Los Angeles most of the world sees in television and in cinema, and a larger one that (as yet) barely makes it to the screen. Ms. Hall brings a modern, complicated Los Angeles to her pages, and it is deeply refreshing to see.

(Photo of author Ryan Gattis © Sam Tenney)

1 comment:

Craig said...

I'm a little surprised the author did not mention two of Michael Connelly's best Harry Bosch books: "Angels Flight," one of his earlier Bosch novels, and the more recent "The Black Box." Both were inspired by Connelly's own experiences in covering the riots as a reporter for the LA Times.