Last week’s mail brought us an advance copy of “Dead to Me” by our longtime friend Mary McCoy of the Los Angeles Public Library, one of the leading lights among those of us who research L.A. history and a past contributor to the 1947project and On Bunker Hill.
Set in Los Angeles in 1948, “Dead” is narrated by 16-year-old Alice Gates and the book is intended for young adults, meaning that – as far as Amazon is concerned, anyway – “Dead” is for ages 12 through 18. But that’s somewhat misleading. Despite Alice’s age, “Dead” is in many ways an adult story. Alice certainly faces adult problems and she shows a surprising precocity in reasoning far beyond her years – except for her knack of getting into trouble with various unsavory Hollywood types, of which there are many.
The book starts simply enough with Alice’s older sister Annie, 19, who ran away four years earlier, in the hospital after being found unconscious and badly beaten in MacArthur Park.
We are introduced to the monumentally dysfunctional Gates family in which the parents are quarreling alcoholics and the father is the sort of studio fixer one reads about in tawdry books on Hollywood. Then there’s the seedy private detective, the has-been starlet who served time for drugs and the egotistical movie idol with a taste for underage girls who has part of the police force on his payroll. And in keeping with the mystery genre, there are secret codes, hidden compartments and plenty of plot reversals to keep readers guessing all the way to the last page.
In writing a period piece, McCoy shows that her knowledge of Los Angeles history is far better than that of most authors and anachronisms are hard to find. Was DU nkirk a real Los Angeles telephone exchange? (Yes). Did the LAPD use batons rather than saps in 1948? (Yes). And McCoy gets bonus points for using one of the big scandals of the era, the dirty picture racket called Smut Inc., although not by name.
But “Dead” is more than a detective story. McCoy’s female characters are finely crafted, especially Alice, a likeable 16-year-old with a fresh, genuine, natural voice. One of the best aspects of “Dead” is the way McCoy explores the complex chemistry between Alice and Annie, the older sister who has always overshadowed her.
I missed spending all my time with [Annie] but I also liked not being half of a set – the boring, tagalong half. The more Annie fought with our parents, the more I tried to be the perfect daughter, clearing the table while they screamed at each other across it. After she stormed out, I’d sit in the living room and do my homework. I made good grades, friends they more or less approved of – I did whatever they asked me to do. The better I was, the less attention they paid to me.
Here’s a sample of one of the more insightful passages in the book (Page 64):
Cassie [Alice’s friend] knew how much my mother had started drinking after Annie left home, but she didn’t know what it was like to live with her. It wasn’t like at the movies, where the drunks are always yelling and throwing vases at other people’s heads. Living with my mother was more like living with a very well-behaved ghost who occasionally woke you up in the middle of the night rattling the doorknobs or crying softly.
In one of the more memorable sections, Alice describes the family outing to Musso & Frank for her 12th birthday. What’s supposed to be a happy occasion degenerates into an ugly, drunken scene between Alice’s parents and the restaurant staff. Stripped of its historical setting, it’s as fresh as if it had just occurred.
This is not the Bayport of the Hardy Boys or the River Heights of Nancy Drew. Los Angeles in 1948 as portrayed in “Dead” can be a cold, cruel place where stories do not always have a Hollywood ending – or at best a Hollywood ending through the prism of “Chinatown.”
Cudos to McCoy for an extremely promising debut novel and the hope of more to come.