For crime buffs and armchair sleuths who have ever wanted a glimpse into the LAPD’s macabre past, author James Ellroy and Police Museum executive director Glynn Martin’s new book LAPD ‘53 (Abrams, May 19) is the perfect educational device to explore the city’s savage past. The first in a planned series of books to be launched under the museum’s new publishing program, the tome peeks at the gruesome underbelly of 1953 L.A. (more on why they chose that year from the authors themselves). We caught up with the duo ahead of the book’s release to talk the golden age of the PD under Chief William H. Parker, the future of L.A.’s mid-century PD headquarters, Parker Center, and—of course—their joint project.
The foreword describes your exhaustive research into the Police Museum’s archives from the year 1953. How long did this book take to produce? Is there anything that didn’t make it into the book that you wish had?
JE: I came up with an idea, which I ran by Glynn, to finance a publishing program for the museum wherein we would publish historical books on the LAPD—scholarly books on police work itself under the museum’s imprint—but we needed some cash. So I said, why don’t we raid the photo archives? I’ll write the text, and we’ll sell the book and put it out on the market. That’s how all of this occurred. Looking into all of the photographs, we saw that there was a surfeit of great looking photos from 1953 and that it was a high watermark in the career of the illustrious Chief William H. Parker, that it was a high watermark for film noir in Los Angeles, that you had a lot of blasphemous groupies, and swingin’, drug-addicted, hop head jazz musicians. I said, this is the shit right there.
GM: Right on the money. James proposed this thing about four years ago. Through his philanthropic efforts and those of his agent we arrived at a contract with Abrams about 21 months ago. The real production was 21 months, and it was truly exhaustive research—it went beyond our own archives to find the backstories. We were down in the coroner’s archives digging through death records, the online archive of the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Public Library, our collection of the Los Angeles Police Department Daily Bulletins—there were a whole series of sources we had to go through to identify the stories that went with the photographs. I think we created a phenomenal volume here to launch the museum’s publishing program.
So you definitely have plans for further books in the series. Any idea what they’re going to be like?
GM: We don’t know with any level of certainty, but what I can tell you is we’re very much researching a book based on the collection of Daily Bulletins, specifically related to homicides in Los Angeles from about 1908 to about 1958.
JE: Our overall thought is to have two lists a year that we publish under the imprint of the Los Angeles Police Museum. Historical books, perhaps reprints. You may not know it, but Jack Webb was a novelist. He wrote several novelizations based on Dragnet. We’ve been talking about reprinting them in trade paperback. There’s a marvelous book of essays that William H. Parker wrote called Parker on Police that’s out of print. We could reprint that in hardcover. We have grand plans. You’re not a hipster are you?
JE: Hipsters don’t like to admit it because it would be considered “uncool,” but hipsters love the LAPD. And they’ve invaded Highland Park up by the Museum.
GM: We’ve already created an outline for a tour that starts and stops at the museum based on LAPD ’53 sites—with the hopes that James is going to narrate a special version of it.
JE: Which I will do, cause I’m a lapdog. And spokes-dog for the LAPD, as well as the demon dog of American literature.
1953 was at the very beginning of Chief Parker’s time in office. What influence were his methods having on crime in L.A. and the way the PD dealt with them?
JE: Parker was a champion of the military form of police work. He stamped out monetary corruption in the LAPD, he believed in suppressive methods of policing which were very well-suited to the time. The crime rate plummeted during his early years in office. He built the LAPD into the elite corps that it is today.
What implications do you think these images had back then and continue to have today? Do you think they were perceived as art?
JE: I don’t think the public looked at these photographs as art. I don’t think they gave much thought to this kind of photograph. There’s a long essay that I write in this book in which I wonder if film noir was influenced by crime-scene photographs or if crime-scene photographs influenced film noir. You know, what came first the chicken or the egg, and I don’t know. These are very artful photographs that we have in our book here, but they were taken by live police officers.
GM: James makes a great point; these weren’t necessarily trained photographers that took these photographs. These were taken by sworn, gun-touting policemen. The images are plainly captured for police purposes, but some are so eye-catching that the photographs exceed their photographic utility. Some of the books of crime-scene photographs that are out there seem to be full of gratuitous gore. Not only was that not the intent here, but it was James’s mandate that we were going to put together meaningful stories with meaningful photographs.
JE: I want to be respectful to the victims, I want to be respectful to police officers in general. Victims, as you know, are in no way complicit in their victim status.
Parker Center was recently nominated for historic landmark status. What are your hopes for its future?
GM: It was my workplace for a number of different assignments during my LAPD career, so there’s an obvious personal attachment there. Putting that aside, the history of Parker Center as it relates to crime, TV, and movies is undeniably significant. However, these aren’t the typical reasons for preserving a building, particularly one on prime downtown real estate. If a building’s architectural meaning mandates preservation, then so be it. I personally think other buildings by the same architect are far more relevant, far more important, and otherwise far more deserving of preservation., particularly Capital Records or the Music Center. When it opened in ’55 it kind of revolutionized police headquarter buildings, but in terms of when I worked there in the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s, it had outlived its utility.
JE: I’d turn it into a crack house with all the profits going to the L.A. Police Museum.
Glynn and Ellroy will be on hand Tuesday, May 19 at 7p.m. for a book signing and launch party at the Los Angeles Police Museum.