Patterico's Pontifications

6/4/2007

Review of “L.A. Rex” by Will Beall

Filed under: Books,General — Patterico @ 12:10 am

This is my long-promised review of “L.A. Rex” by Will Beall. I highly recommend it, and it’s available for the ridiculous price of $5 at Amazon, if you click the link in the previous sentence. (I don’t get anything out of it, other than the satisfaction of referring readers to a good book.)

While I was about halfway through this book, I described it as “a thinly disguised over-the-top Suge Knight tale told in snap-crackling prose, filled with street references that probably go over the heads of 90 percent of the people who read it.”

Now that I have (long ago) finished the book, I think my characterization is a pretty decent thirty-word description of the whole book. Beall is a homicide detective with LAPD’s 77th Division, and his background lends his writing an authenticity that you can’t get any other way. His prose carries the authentic punch of street talk. If I have one criticism of the prose, it’s that it targets a relatively insular audience that will understand all the references; the only people likely to pick up every single one are probably Beall’s colleagues at 77th. The more familiar you are with L.A. in general, and with L.A. law enforcement in particular, the closer this book will hit home. But even if you aren’t a law enforcement insider, you’ll enjoy the book, and will pick up most of the references from context — and the ones you don’t, will be simply details that give an atmospheric sense of Really Being There (after all, we don’t understand everything we see in real life either).

The realism of the dialogue and the authentic feel of the characters helps you live with a sensational plot that appears to have been written with a movie deal in mind. (Beall apparently got one, so hey, whatever works, works.) But if you’re going to write an over-the-top plot, L.A. is the place to set it — because this place is crazy enough that any crazy-sounding plot just might be pulled from real life.

I don’t like to discuss plots in my reviews; I like approaching books and movies from a relatively clean slate. The Suge Knight reference I give you above is enough of a road map — with this twist: this Suge Knight is a bibliophile, which makes him more sympathetic than your standard cookie-cutter rap gangster thug.

Rather than plots, let me give you a sample of the writing. I picked two passages that really stood out for their descriptive power.

One of the book’s main characters is LAPD Officer Miguel Marquez, a seasoned old-school patrol officer in the vein of the protagonist of Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Blue Knight” — but with much rougher edges. Here is a passage in which Marquez muses on the retirement of a colleague, and contemplates his own impending retirement:

My brother, Marquez thought, I’m not far behind you — both of us bound for one of those stucco shoe boxes out in Fontana or maybe Ontario, with bars on the windows and white rocks for a lawn. Hook up with some broad who collects Hummel figurines and take a cruise to Ensenada once a year. Tell the same war stories over and over. Grill some Costco chicken on the patio, listen to AM radio, and bitch about the whole world going down the toilet. Your whole career reduced to one of those while-you-wait bobble-head cartoons they put on your retirement flier. And your buddies drop in to drop twenty a plate for an open bar at the Rock Garden, get bombed on nostalgia and domestic beer. Then somebody drives you home, and come Monday they’re back at work and you’re taking trips to the hardware store just to keep busy.

That’s good writing. The effectiveness of the passage comes from the understated yet relentless listing of specific and unerringly accurate details. This is a good example of what I mean when I say that the details mean more to insiders, but are still accessible to outsiders. To appreciate this passage, you don’t have to know that retirement parties actually do take place at the Rock Garden, and you don’t have to have actually seen one of those bobble-head cartoon retirement fliers — but if you are familiar with such details (as I am), it brings a smile of recognition to your face. It’s powerful writing regardless of whether you recognize the details as familiar or not.

Here’s a second passage I realy liked, in which Darius, the book-loving Suge Knight character, visits the whitebread Westlake Promenade, and contrasts it in his mind with his knowledge of South Central Los Angeles:

Everyone here was Stepford white, unless you counted Service Mexicans, unobtrusively brown and nearly mute, bagging groceries, parking cars, and bussing tables with the practicied invisibility of English butlers — men who erased themselves for less than minimum wage.

These white men all looked the same. They all seemed to have the same Peter Jennings haircut, the same doughy face, and the prosperously thickening gut of a jock gone to seed. They wore dry-cleaned golf shirts, pressed jeans, caps with tasteful logos on them — Ralph Lauren, J. Crew.

The women all carried expensive purses, matching barettes, watches, belts. Rhinestones on crisp denim jackets, manicured toes poking out of pricey black mules. They wore fashionable haircuts, the dye jobs more elaborate on some of the older models, gray becoming blond. Some of their faces looked surgically taut, a few with the sheen of a recent chemical peel.

There was none of the jittery flailing and woofing you saw in the hood, niggas cutting wild-ass capers just to burn off their constant fear. In South Central, people moved with purpose, stepped with a feral alertness, stayed on top of their shit all the time because daydreaming would kill you out there. But these folks looked carelessly confident, calm, almost drowsy with the anesthetic comfort of their utter safety. And that safety seemed to make them easygoing, munificent. People here smiled and stepped aside for strangers without any life-threatening loss of face. There was none of that postprison bristle you saw in the hood, the Gs puffing up like polecats, taking up more space than they needed because everyone they encountered was a potential enemy. Folks here actually pivoted to let others pass. And when their bodies brushed against each other, the kind of inadvertent physical contact that could and often did result in death in South Central, these people just smiled, said excuse me, and moved on.

If you enjoyed these passages, as I did, you should get this book. It’s a lot of entertainment for five bucks.

2 Responses to “Review of “L.A. Rex” by Will Beall”

  1. I don’t get anything out of it

    Well, why not? It’s an easier way to contribute than scrolling all the down to the PayPal button.

    I’ve lately started reading Michael Connelly and Jonathan Kellerman and have been wondering how accurate they are. The descriptions of the b.s. the detectives put up with is pretty depressing, even if it’s only partially true.

    MamaAJ (788539)

  2. Beall has a nice street tone. I used to read Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin and your samples remind me of the way those guys could write about New York. Breslin has gotten a lot MORE liberal in the last 10 years or so, pretty much the way Mailer has always been. I’m buyin’ LA Rex it and it will work it’s way up through the current backup stack…which is pretty good right now.
    1) Up In Honey’s Room–Elmore Leonard
    2) Flinch–Robert Ferrigno
    3) Tales From Q School–John Feinstein

    I’m just finishing the first John Sandford book I’ve read–Dead Watch. I’ll try him again, was a good airplane read.

    PC14 (b97dba)


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