"L.A. Noir" is a fascinating study of organized crime in Los Angeles and the politics of policing it from the Twenties to the Sixties. It's an entertaining read that I found hard to put down. The book has everything: mob hits, police brutality, corruption, violence, glamor, and pathos. The author focuses on two major figures whose lives spanned this period: the gangster Micky Cohen and LAPD officer and chief Bill Parker. The two eventually became bitter enemies in a struggle for the soul of the city.
For most of the time period covered, the LAPD resembled a mercenary army, subject to being bought off or bribed by one mob faction or another. Los Angeles was a wide open city, where crime flourished and no one tried too hard to bring the Syndicate to heel. While this sometimes led to wild instability and brutal killings, at other times the mob was able to reach an accommodation with the police and city hall, known as the "Combination." For a while, the Combination controlled L.A.
Mickey Cohen was a lackluster boxer and low-life hood who rose to the top in the criminal underworld in Los Angeles. His chief strengths appear to have been absolute ruthlessness and a complete lack of fear. He stood up with almost crazy resolve, especially in the early days, to mobsters much more powerful than he was, almost daring them to kill him. His recklessness paid off. Bugsy Siegel made him his right-hand man, and when Bugsy eventually dropped out of the picture, Mickey ascended to the top spot. He had it all: wealth, power, respect, and the company of beautiful women.
But Cohen had an adversary, a nemesis in Bill Parker. Parker was an odd duck: personally incorruptible but flawed by his heavy drinking, narrow-mindedness, and fits of rage. Over decades he worked to insulate the police department from political pressure, a key facilitator of corruption. When he finally made it to the top, he went after the mob with a vengeance. He suffered from a strange form of Cold War paranoia, believing that organized crime served the nefarious purposes of Communism. He would later bring the same unfortunate linkage to his view of the Civil Rights movement, with tragic results.
The sidelights in this book are what really makes it fun. Whether it's Billy Graham trying to convert Mickey Cohen, the mob coming down on Sammy Davis, Jr. for dating Kim Novak, the use of Jack Webb's "Dragnet" to burnish the LAPD's image, a look at the politics of wiretapping, or Mike Wallace's interview with Mickey Cohen (in which Cohen called Parker a "degenerate"), the book is full of colorful anecdotes, containing one fascinating revelation after another.
The book ends with an exploration of the LAPD's tragic bungling of the Watts riots, laying the failure at part at Parker's own feet. It is a rich reminder of the man's multifaceted character and his flaws. I highly recommend "L.A. Noir" for its fascinating history of crime corruption in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles.