In L.A. Noir’s brief prologue, author John Buntin claims the story he’s about to tell—the three-decade metaphorical duel to the death between the LAPD’s Chief William Parker and outstandingly successful gangster Mickey Cohen—“would change the history of Los Angeles, set race relations in America on a dangerous new path, and chart a problematic course for American policing.” Fortunately, the prologue is a hyperbolic lie. This isn’t one of those books about how a seemingly small object or a single person changed the world forever and ever without anyone noticing until now; it’s a lengthy, absorbing history and a dual biography, with one of the opponents living longer and more influentially than the other. Parker effectively gets the last 50 pages to himself, as Buntin gets around to Watts and argues that the structures Parker built to combat gangster crime undermined the department’s ability to deal with race relations in the ’60s and beyond. And Buntin doesn’t have to overinflate the importance of Mickey Cohen to do it.
L.A. Noir begins in 1920s Los Angeles, when young William Parker arrived in L.A. from the real Deadwood with a newly divorced mother and younger siblings. Cohen grew up in L.A., but wandered through organized crime in other cities before returning to L.A. in 1937 to work for Bugsy Siegel. Buntin is blessed with equally colorful material (and nicknames) for both sides. Parker’s first rise in the LAPD came under the patronage of Chief James “Two Gun” Davis. Cohen and Siegel predictably bring their own slew of anecdotes (not least when Siegel almost killed Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels in the middle of an attempt to do business with Mussolini’s army; the man had standards). There’s so much color that Buntin feels free to give many people walk-on cameos for their most interesting trait, then move on.
So Buntin’s book is smoothly written, absorbing, and consistently involving; this is well-trod territory, but the existence of James Ellroy hardly makes it redundant. Once Cohen fades into irrelevance, the end is a brief rush to race from Watts to the ’92 riots, and Buntin does an effective job of showing how LAPD chief Daryl Gates suffered from Parker’s worst traits. From archaic gangster color to present-day race relations, Buntin nails it down without sacrificing entertainment value for a second.