Note: Readers may recall that Tony Chavira is a longtime ISLF friend. Please know that I purchased a copy of this title using my own funds. I do not accept free review copies.
Genre geeks love to argue over a simple question: "What is noir?" Some say it's nothing more than a feeling, an emotional vibration that comes when you read about a trench-coat-clad gumshoe slinking through rain-slicked city streets. But that seems a bit too restrictive for me. Others argue that it's a nihilistic offshoot of hardboiled, yet I've encountered profoundly moral stories that everyone calls noir. Some say it involves a protagonist going willingly to his doom, and this seems closer to the mark if somewhat lacking in nuance. We could pick nits all day, but let's state that noir is gritty subgenre of crime fiction that always ends badly. Agreed? Great. Now how does Gary Phillips' and Tony Chavira's Beat L.A. -- a comic and prose-fiction compendium that proudly wears the noir label -- mesh with that definition?
Bicycle cop Dave Richter doesn't even know he's in it deep. He thinks he's got a nice thing going with his hot-as-a-blast-furnace squeeze Sylvia, and her position with development firm The Harkspur Corporation doesn't bother him at all. It should. Harkspur CEO Strother Moreland has about as many scruples as an obsessive-compulsive kleptomaniac, and that goes double for his inked-up female bodyguard, Rhoda Glink. Add to that the further weirdness of a rash of ritualistic murders showing all the makings of a serial killer and a gun-toting vigilante wearing a life-sized rabbit head which may -- or may not -- be part of an elaborate costume. Harkspur's planning a big project, and as it progresses, Dave's going to have to deal with an exponentially increasing body count. Meanwhile, his fellow cops Markus Brand and J.P. Reese find themselves with a situation that could prove even worse. Their unexpected discovery of a secret hobo village smack in the middle of Los Angeles doesn't turn out to be the humanitarian opportunity that local community organizers expect. Heroin addiction is running rampant throughout its population -- and almost nowhere else in the city. Could someone be targeting this particular group of unfortunates? Might it have something to do with Conglomerated Properties efforts to secure development rights for the parcel upon which they're squatting?
Remember those three defining traits of noir? Crime fiction. Gritty. Ends badly. Well, Beat L.A. certainly has the first two down pat. In some ways, it feels almost like an offshoot of the classic procedural. Phillips and Chavira keep their focus squarely on Richter, Brand and Reese, zeroing in on their public struggles and secret motivations even as a preposterous ensemble of secondary characters cavorts around them. Don't take "preposterous" as a criticism, either. In grand comic-book tradition, Beat L.A. is populated with over-the-top antagonists. The bunny-headed vigilante, who goes by Genghis Rabbit, proves the most interesting. Backed by an addled cult of street thugs, he may be nothing more than a well-armed anarchist, but he could also be a reincarnated Mayan construction worker. That's not to give short shrift to other characters, though, which include a sadomasochism-loving corporate type, a rogue black-ops agent who recalls an über-capable Norman Bates, and a fornicating urban pastor with espionage on his mind. Yeah, I think we can check off the "gritty" box, too. Beat L.A. ain't for kids, and I wasn't sure that it would be for me, either, what with a subtitle rich with ideological undertones ("Patrolling the Underside of Gentrification"). Few authors can get political while simultaneously keeping their stories on track. Yet while Beat L.A. subtly digs at Texas governor Rick Perry and lauds unionized workers, it mostly avoids becoming partisan. The overall tone seems to be frustration over the inefficiency and corruption of government, a sentiment most everyone can agree with and one that feeds into the overall pessimistic tone. Yes, the three stories in Beat L.A. share noir's antipathy to pat, happy endings, but only one main character perishes, and that doesn't quite jive with noir's typical pitch-black bleakness. Arguing over definitions, though, is for the chronically underemployed and academics. Criminal, gritty, dark and fun -- Beat L.A. is all of them.
Postscript: This post was featured on the I Saw Lightning Fall podcast. To listen, check out the widget below, visit the show's Soundcloud page, or subscribe via iTunes.
(Picture: Copyright 2013 by Gary Phillips and Tony Chavira; used under fair use)