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Festival of Books preview: Denise Hamilton Q&A

April 22, 2008 |  3:09 pm

DenisehamiltonDenise Hamilton writes bestselling crime novels featuring reporter Eve Diamond ("Prisoner of Memory," "Savage Garden"), although her next book (due July 1) is going in a new direction (back in time -- see below). Hamilton also is the editor of the anthology "Los Angeles Noir." At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, you'll find her in conversation with Harlan Coben on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

Jacket Copy: Your upcoming novel, "The Last Embrace," is set in 1949 and, like Raymond Chandler's mysteries, begins with the search for a missing person who soon turns up dead. Was Chandler a reference for you? Was it fun to enter that world?

Denise Hamilton: Chandler's shadow looms large, sure, but my postwar L.A. is a more optimistic place than his, and the protagonist is a dame -- a former OSS spy -- so it's filtered through a girlie lens. The book is edgy and twisty, with shadows and secrets, but I also wanted to write about friendships between actresses in a Hollywood boarding house and the Golden Age of stop-motion animation. 1949 was a fascinating, transitional time: The euphoria of winning WWII is fading, the Cold War and the fears of nuclear annihilation are upon us, the Hollywood Blacklist is stirring, the Golden Age of Hollywood is ending, TV is brand new and -- perhaps most important for my novel -- the women who fought and held jobs and experienced independence have been laid off, decommissioned and are heading for the suburbs and the conservative 1950s, which created some interesting dynamics.

JC: Are there any places in Los Angeles that, for you, evoke 1949? Did you visit them when you were writing?

DH: Alas, so many of the places that evoked 1949 are gone. I'm talking of places like Ciro's, the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, the Garden of Allah, the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, Slapsie Maxie's (said to be owned by gangster Mickey Cohen), the ubiquitous lunch counters and soda fountains throughout the city. Places that remain like Musso & Frank's, the Pacific Dining Car and the Formosa Café have almost become clichés, so I wanted to stay away from them. I did visit the Egyptian Theater and the Pig 'n' Whistle next door, an old Hollywood eatery/watering hole where I set a scene. Some of the apartment buildings and hotels around MacArthur and Lafayette Park still hearken back to 1949. The Valley was mostly agricultural then, but reading Kevin Roderick's book, "The San Fernando Valley, America's Suburb," helped me evoke a mood, as did many oral histories and memoirs of the era.

I also drove around Hollywood at odd hours a lot, just looking at the streets, the houses, the odd triangular buildings and alleys where the electric cars used to travel. The old Barlow Respiratory Hospital in Echo Park/Elysian Park is also old L.A., and I set a scene there.

My biggest disappointment was that the Hollywood Hotel is gone. It was a sprawling Spanish-Deco hotel at Hollywood and Highland boulevards that was built in the early 20th century by and for actors because they weren't welcomed at the city's posh hotels. Many actors kept permanent suites there. It was lush, with tiled pools, archways, tropical plants. The dining room walls had stars with actors' names that hung above the actors' favorite tables. If the Hollywood Hotel were still around today, it would be a shrine. But it was torn down in the '60s, and we all know what's at that intersection now!

JC: Will there be another "Los Angeles Noir" collection?

DH: I hope there will be, but the initial "Los Angeles Noir" is still going strong, so I haven't yet discussed it with Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, which does the city noir series. If it follows the pattern of the "Brooklyn Noir" series, the next collection might comprise classic L.A. noir tales for which we've gotten reprint rights, then a volume of true L.A. crime stories. At any rate, there's no shortage of material and talented writers here. The hard part is winnowing it down to 16 or 17 selections.

JC: What parts of the Festival of Books are you looking forward to?

DH: I tend to be very isolated, reclusive and almost antisocial when I'm in writing mode. The festival is when I come blinking, lemur-like, into the light. It's like the L.A. Times throws a big party, and I get to catch up with many author friends and go all fan-girl on authors I admire but have never met before. This year I'd love to meet Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Kelly Link.

JC: And finally, where would you go in L.A. for a 1949-style dinner? Or a 1949-style burger?

DH: The Pacific Dining Car if you're feeling flush. Du-par's if you're not.

Carolyn Kellogg