Disclaimer: Kim Cooper invited me to participate in the blog tour for her new novel, The Kept Girl. I have met Kim a couple of times and she was kind enough to blurb one of the books I published. She has written several books about music and popular culture, including the best-selling volume in the acclaimed 33 1/3 series, an oral history of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Kim is also a third-generation Los Angeleno and her company Esotouric takes participants on tours of her city that go far beyond the usual tourist fare, including “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles” and “The Real Black Dahlia.”
The Kept Girl may be Cooper’s first work of fiction, but much of the material in this novel is based on true events and real people. The year is 1929, and Los Angeles has grown from a “sleepy, slightly sleazy grove-man’s village” to one that has been forever changed by “oil and real estate speculation, motion pictures and tourism, dream makers and sharpies.”
Working in the booming oil business is one Raymond Chandler, who rose from bookkeeper at the Dabney Oil Syndicate to vice president before being fired in 1932 for alcoholism and absenteeism, a turn of events which ultimately led to his career as an author. As The Kept Girl opens, Chandler is still the fair-haired boy of Joseph Dabney, who wants his employee to help recover $40,000 lost to swindlers by his spoiled and ineffectual nephew. Chandler soon discovers that the women who took Clifford Dabney’s money were not run-of-the-mill grifters, but a mother-daughter duo who head a cult of angel worshippers. The women promised Clifford that the Angel Gabriel was going to reveal “how to read the stars to find the mineral wealth within the earth,” something that could potentially turn his small fortune into a much larger one.
Chandler is aided in his search by his loyal secretary and mistress, Muriel, and an idealistic policeman named Tom, demoted to street patrol after clashing with some of the LAPD’s top brass. (Tom is based on real-life L.A. cop Thomas H. James, who may have been a model for Chandler’s famous private eye, Philip Marlowe.) Muriel splits off from Tom and Ray, impulsively “going rogue” to try and infiltrate the cult, hoping to dig up enough information on her own to win recognition from Joseph Dabney. All three of the investigators wind up making some truly creepy discoveries and facing danger from fanatics who will do anything to keep their horrible secrets.
I don’t consider myself an expert on religious cults, but it’s a topic I have been fascinated by for a couple of decades, and I have read a lot on the subject. Everything in The Kept Girl rang very true to me. In one scene, Ray meets a true believer, who says that he and his fellow worshipers “don’t sneer at Christ, but we leave him in the past where he belongs. This is a modern world, friend. We need modern prophets, who understand machines–and science!” (Cue the recent Scientology ad which starts out, “Imagine science–and religion!”)
Ray sometimes seems like he’s going to sink under the weight of his troubles, which include alcoholism (it was obviously not difficult to get a drink in Prohibition-era L.A.) and a loveless marriage; meanwhile, the intrepid Muriel wound up as my favorite character in the novel. She loves Ray, but she’s nobody’s fool, and a scene in which Muriel, separated from her boss during her solo investigation, considers what her life has become since she met him is incredibly poignant.
Browsing the list of true crime tours presented by Esotouric made me want to book a trip to L.A. to see which of Chandler’s old haunts still exist–and it made me hope that Cooper is already planning to write more novels set on the early-20th-century mean streets of her beloved home town.