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Festival of Books: Author John Buntin

April 20, 2010 | 11:52 am

Noirbuntin
One of the authors who will be at the L.A. Times Festival of Books -- this weekend, April 24-25 -- is John Buntin. Although he lives near Washington, D.C., Buntin became fascinated by Los Angeles -- particularly the criminals and the cops, as can be seen in his book "L.A. Noir." He'll appear on the Sunday-morning panel "History: Los Angeles in the Limelight." He answered Carolyn Kellogg's questions by e-mail. 

Jacket Copy: Your book, "L.A. Noir," is about crime and cops in L.A.'s past. You're not from L.A., and you don't live here -- what was compelling enough about the city for you to write a book about it?

John Buntin: I first visited Southern California in 1999. I was living in Boston at the time, working for Harvard's [John F.] Kennedy School of Government. My assignment was to write a case study for the Justice Department about public safety responses to a series of anthrax hoaxes. After a week careening around Palm Desert, Riverside and Westwood, I was utterly baffled. I'd never encountered a city that was so confusing. So the following year I decided to move to here.

For me, L.A.'s mystery was part of its appeal. In Boston, it was easy to find people who knew everything about the city. That wasn't true of L.A. Even the city's politicians -- this was Mayor Richard Riordan's heyday -- didn't seem to understand exactly whom they were governing. So L.A. was a puzzle to be figured out. In some ways, the LAPD was the ultimate mystery. Why had it played such a central role in the city's history, from Prohibition to Watts to the Rodney King riots? And how could the brutal police force portrayed in L.A. Confidential be the same force depicted in the TV show "Dragnet"? "Dragnet's" premiere occurred at the same time as the brutal Christmas 1951 beating that inspired the opening of "L.A. Confidential"!

JC: What do you hope to see or do in L.A. apart from the Festival of Books?

JB: I always love to get downtown. So after I do a reading at the Whittier public library on Friday, I'm going to go explore galleries in Chinatown. I have a reading Friday night at the Jonathan Club, so I'll probably get a shave at Bolt on Spring Street too.

JC: What are you currently reading?

JB: I'm reading the memoirs of one of New York City's most noteworthy police commissioners, Theodore Roosevelt.

JC: What are you looking forward to at the festival?

JB: David Ulin's conversation with Dave Eggers. I so admire what he's doing with McSweeney's and with his nonfiction writing.

JC: Do you have a favorite book or movie about Los Angeles?

JB: Bookwise, I love Otto Friedrich's ode to 1940s Hollywood, "City of Nets." In terms of movies, one of my favorites is the great 1948 B-movie, "He Walked by Night." Inspired by the real-life murder of a California highway patrolman, it offers a great chase through the mean streets (and sewers) of noir Los Angeles. It's also the film that birthed "Dragnet." Jack Webb plays a crime lab technician in the film. On the set, Webb met LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn, who convinced him to change a P.I. show Webb was working on, tentatively entitled "Joe Friday, Room 5," into something new -- the first police procedural.

There's a delicious historical irony as well. "He Walked by Night" was produced by Eagle-Lion Studios, which was run by Bryan Foy. Foy had close ties to the Chicago Outfit; he even employed Johnny Roselli as an assistant producer. By some accounts, Roselli actually worked on this film. So in a sense, the old Capone mob launched "Dragnet," the series that made the LAPD, a force dedicated to exterminating organized crime in Los Angeles, America's most famous police force.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Harmony Publishing

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