Contemporary or retro, a lot of “L.A. Noir” stories, novels and films claim they’ll take you on a tour of the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Sean Carswell’s Dead Extra (Prospect Park Books, 2019) drags you into the worst, and then rubs your nose in it…in a good way.
I already forgot where I spotted Carswell’s new book. Crime Reads? Thrilling Detective? The Rap Sheet? Bottom line: I follow or subscribe to a few too many mystery/crime fiction sites/blogs, so it’s hard to keep track. But one of them recommended Dead Extra and I’m glad I asked the local bookstore to get me a copy (small press titles so rarely found on-shelf anywhere but in specialty shops).
Presumed to be killed in action, WWII U.S. Airman (and former LAPD uniformed cop) Jack Chesley has finally returned to Los Angeles after a two-year stint in a Nazi POW camp, only to discover that both his father and his wife, Wilma, are dead. The wife’s demise was ruled an accident, but her twin sister Gertie knows better. Wilma was murdered, and at that only after enduring a couple years of exploitation and abuse at the hands of silver screen big shots bankrolling sleazy prostitution and blackmail rackets.
The story unfolds in alternating points of view, one chapter for Jack in the 1946 present day as he begins to investigate Wilma’s death, and one for Wilma in 1943 and 1944, telling her horribly degrading story: Going off the deep end after getting that telegram from Uncle Sam, committed to a sanitarium, tricked into performing for a no-tell motel’s striptease sex club in order to escape, and then on the run from a murderous gang of pimps and blue movie blackmailers.
There’s nothing titillating about this seamy underworld, and while vengeful Jack Chesley’s investigation covers familiarly gripping hard-boiled ground, it’s really Wilma’s story (as well as her twin sister Gertie’s in the ‘present day’) that will ensnare the reader. I’d have been content with a book that let Wilma tell her own tale…it’s a novel in itself.
Cozy mystery fans would surely faint a few chapters into Dead Extra, but retro crime fiction fans – especially those enjoying period hard-boiled So-Cal material ala Chandler to Ellroy – will probably find themselves comfortably at home here. It’s rough stuff in many places, but I’ll assume that’s only because the author decided not to pull any punches. And the novel has its share of punches and gunshots to go along with the 1940’s era sleaze. Do look for Sean Carswell’s Dead Extra. And let’s prod Sean Carswell into taking a whack at a novel that tells the story of another ‘Wilma’ or ‘Gertie’…he did it well here and I’d love to see more.