Gregg Hurwitz's The Crime Writer - An Experimental Detective Story Set in LA

By , Contributor

L.A. is the perfect setting for mysteries. Since there’s no there in LA, people can hide out anywhere.  After all, Raymond Chandler set The Big Sleep in LA, and detective stories don’t get any better than that.

Still, Raymond Chandler didn’t go to Harvard and Oxford, as Gregg Hurwitz did.  If you get a terrific education at two of the world’s best schools, and then turn to writing detective stories, you may start to feel restricted by the conventions of the form, such as these: An honest and therefore poor detective has an office in a rundown part of town, and business is slow. But then a woman (okay, “dame”) walks in. The thing is, though, she’s not who she says she is…

Enter Hurwitz, who clearly read Vladimir Nabokov while getting himself superbly educated, and even more clearly benefited from his reading. So in the best tradition of innovative artists, like Dylan and Picasso, he writes a book, The Crime Writer that is both a love song to the L.A. detective story and also deconstructs it at the same time.

There are two reasons why writers love L.A. First, they don’t have to commute, which is huge. Second, they can let out all the stops in their writing, the way Hurwitz does when he tells us what the narrator sees as he drives: “Through Beverly Hills’ runs of palms oft filmed but never captured, leisure suits riding Segways to Valentino, celebutantes strolling with purse dogs, agents with their invisible cell-phone earpieces mumbling solo outside restaurants and at stoplights, the nattering dispossessed.” Great stuff.

Still, people have been writing about L.A. like this at least since Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, so Hurwitz takes Nabokov’s principle that art is like life, and vice versa, and applies it to L.A. His hero is a writer, after all. He may or may not have murdered a former lover, so he has to write a story about what happened in order to clear himself. “No story, no meaning,” as his current lover says. It’s as hard for him to clear himself as it is for him to write his story. A helpful friend shows tough love by saying, “You’re stuck in the first act and you’re not driving your narrative.”

As writers do, our hero writes drafts, and then revises them. That seems straightforward enough until you notice that Hurwitz includes the drafts, in Courier font, to distinguish them from the final (?) text, along with handwritten annotations. So we have two different stories—his story and the cops’ story—in two different typefaces.  I’ve been reading detective stories all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like this.

In the end, of course, he identifies the murderer, an unlikely guy with the purest of motives. How very appropriate for a terrific book that both confirms the tradition of the L.A. detective story while playing games with it at the same time!

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