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Classic California crime

April 28, 2009 | 10:10 am

Richardrayner

(We originally wrote that David Ward interviewed 100 inmates of Alcatraz; we’ve changed the post to note that some interviewees were inmates and others were not. Additionally, the post originally noted that one inmate tried to escape from Alcatraz again after a successful attempt; that has been changed to show that his other escape efforts were from other institutions.)

Sunday's panel on criminal literature showed that perhaps there's been too much written on what makes a criminal turn to a life of crime and not enough written about what makes a writer turn to a life of crime reporting.

"My dad was a crook," explained Richard Rayner, whose nonfiction book "A Bright and Guilty Place" (coming in June) follows two men as they navigate the Los Angeles crime scene in the 1920s and '30s. He has a very personal reason for asking, "How does someone go down that road?"

"The interest for me was in trying to figure out what made Leslie White go one way and Dave Clark go the other way," he said of his main characters, one of whom finds himself in a downward spiral of vice and corruption. (No spoilers here!)

"These were human beings that weren't any better or worse than the rest of us," added Larry Harnisch, whose Los Angeles Times blog The Daily Mirror looks at historical crime cases in California. He's chronicled cases of the Black Dahlia and the Changeling.

But David Ward had reason to disagree. His latest book, "Alcatraz: The Gangster Years," follows the criminals deemed "the worst of the worst." For the book he located and interviewed 46 guards and staff members and 54 former inmates, most of whom never returned to prison.

"The Alcatraz inmates aren’t like the rest of us," he said. They are the leaders, the highly intelligent, the very articulate, the type-A criminals. He told a story of one former criminal he interviewed, the only one to ever escape from "the rock," who swam all the way to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where he was sighted by tourists and assumed to be a jumper.

“It’s great, hearing his story and what it was like going along with the current, floating past Ghirardelli Square.” He was taken to the local hospital and treated for hypothermia. Then he was returned to Alcatraz. (After he was caught, he was transferred to other prisons, from which he also tried to escape).

“But," Ward said, "he proved it could be done."

— Stephanie Harnett

Photo: Christina House / For The Times

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