RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Los Angeles has some of the highest priced real estate in the country. Add to that the tensions of race and gentrification and changing neighborhoods, and things can get combustible pretty quickly. For today's Crime In The City, our profiles of crime writers and the places they write about, Karen Grigsby Bates, from NPR's Code Switch team, met up with Rachel Howzell Hall. In her new crime series, Hall introduces readers to a shadowy side of LA.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Rachel Howzell Hall is easing her big laurel-green Mercedes sedan through the streets of Los Angeles. A slim woman with big eyes, Hall says this Benz is her dream car - the thing she'd planned to buy for herself once she'd become a successful writer, probably around age 50.
RACHEL HOWZELL HALL: And then when I was 33-years-old, I was diagnosed with a rare type of breast cancer, and I was pregnant. And it was terrifying.
BATES: She had a great team of doctors and lots of family support. And she survived to deliver a healthy daughter who's now 10. But after her medical crisis, Hall emerged with some newfound direction. No more waiting - whether it's her dream car or her writing career. Before cancer, Hall had really wanted to write a detective novel but was afraid to because she wasn't a cop. What if she got something wrong? But facing her own mortality changed everything.
HALL: Having faced that, that's the biggest fear anyone could have. It's, like, OK, you're writing a book? That's not scary. I can do that. And that's when I started "Land Of Shadows," actually.
BATES: "Land Of Shadows" features Hall's heroine - homicide detective, Eloise Norton. Known as Lou, Norton is scary-smart, fiercely ambitious and mostly able to shrug off the slings and arrows she sometimes receives as the only woman and the only African-American on her homicide detail.
The book opens when Lou is called to a construction site in south LA to investigate an unidentified teen girl's death. Lou suspects the real estate mogul building the complex may be involved but also may have ties to the unsolved disappearance of Lou's own sister two decades earlier. Whether she can detach herself from her personal past to effectively investigate the current death drives the plot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: We are very happy to have Rachel Hall with us tonight. Please welcome Rachel Hall.
BATES: At a reading at Eso Won Books in the cultural heart of black LA, Hall tells the audience Lou Norton reminded her of an earlier character she'd admired in the 1991 movie "Silence Of The Lambs." She says Jodie Foster's FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and Lou Norton are poised and confident. But they come from hard beginnings which can be a sore spot. Hall tells them she kept in mind this scene in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter quickly deconstructs Starling when she tries to profile him.
HALL: She sits down with Hannibal, and he quickly tells her about herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SILENCE OF THE LAMBS")
ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Hannibal Lecter) You know what you look like to me with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling?
HALL: And I wanted - as I created Lou - I wanted her to have some of that.
BATES: She meant she wanted Lou to have come from the same kind of financially pinched childhood Agent Starling had. And through her own hard work and drive, to carry a gold badge and a gun - but just as Hannibal Lecter could figure out Agent Starling's West Virginia roots, some people still see Lou Norton as the tall black girl from The Jungle.
The Jungle, as residents and cops often sardonically call it, is Lou's old neighborhood. Although now it's called something else. At Eso Won, Hall reads from Lou's depiction of The Jungle for her audience as they nod in recognition.
HALL: (Reading) Baldwin Village was the government name for my old neighborhood, but regular people knew it as The Jungle. A used-to-be-nice-place to live back in the '60s - a neighborhood boasting twisty streets lined with banana palms, roomy apartments and swimming pools.
BATES: Hall's description is spot-on because she knows the neighborhood as well as Lou Norton does.
HALL: We are on Santo Tomas and Nicollette Avenue in the Jim Gilliam Parks across from where I grew up as a kid.
BATES: This sunny park is just opposite the second story Jungle apartment young Rachel Howzell lived in growing up. In the '60s, she says, it was nicknamed The Jungle because of the lush tropical foliage that surrounded each of the area's garden apartment buildings.
HALL: And then late '70s came PCP and gang members, and it took on a whole new different name - The Jungle. And it got a little wild because of drug dealing and gang banging and all the rest of it.
BATES: Hall's parents kept a very close eye on her and her three siblings, filling their time with church, music lessons and academic competitions. They were the Cleaver family, only black and in a Section 8 neighborhood.
It's the same neighborhood Lou Norton left and now patrols in. When grim stuff happens here, she manages to keep her distance with cynicism. Hall reads how Lou reacts when her boss calls to tell her about the Jane Doe hanging in a condominium closet.
HALL: (Reading) In this city, Jane Does were always found hanging around - in closets, off bridges, in shower stalls. Yeah, a security guard found her in one of those condos over on Santa Rosalia near The Jungle - the one still under construction. You know I'm right. I had started to lift my right knee but froze. My grip tightened around the phone because, yeah, I knew Santa Rosalia, and, yeah, I knew The Jungle.
From age three and on until my 18th birthday, I had lived in that part of black Los Angeles. Worse, my big sister Victoria had been snatched off those streets never to be seen again. I hated The Jungle, and yet I had never left.
BATES: Part of the reason she patrols it now is to try to keep other girls safe. Rachel Hall, herself, lives not far from The Jungle. But it's obvious the short drive there puts one in a very different part of black LA. Her neighborhood, View Park, is largely unknown to people who don't live here. The houses are nestled in the hills that rise just above Hall's childhood home. She says she used to look up at them through her kitchen window and dream as she washed the dishes.
HALL: I grew up, you know, in The Jungle looking at, you know, very big homes on the hills. And I knew black folks lived there, and I knew that they were wealthy. And I aspired to that. And I wanted to be up that hill.
BATES: And now she is.
HALL: David and I, on our wedding day...
BATES: Hall's butter-yellow living room is hung with family portraits. Here are her siblings, her parents, her wedding pictures, and a photo of her and husband, David, in the delivery room beaming as they display their just-born daughter, Maya. There's a piano she plays when she wants to relax, and a window seat she likes to sit in when she writes.
HALL: I start my drafts in long-hand. I write on legal pads. I love pencils and pens.
BATES: Hall never gets writer's block. She says as working mother, wife and cancer survivor, she doesn't have time for it. Instead, Rachel Howzell Hall is spending her time on what counts - enjoying her family and writing novels that, via Detective Lou Norton, make people re-think what they think they know about south Los Angeles. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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