Brian Townsley talks Mickey Cohen, and his new novel, “A Trunk Full of Zeroes.”

Author: Brian Townsley

Author: Brian Townsley

Tell me about the inspiration for your new novel A Trunk Full of Zeroes.

I love L.A. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and read things like the Marlowe novels and the Easy Rawlings novels and saw films like Chinatown and so many others, and it was something that I simply felt that I had something to add to. The novel touches on some things that seem relatively neglected by many noir writers, like Central Ave., which was at one point a vibrant jazz and blues community on the West Coast, and Gilmore Field, which is now a shopping center but at one time was the home of the only professional baseball team in Los Angeles. We’ve all read and/or seen a lot about 50’s Los Angeles—regardless of where we’re from—but there’s a heck of a lot that’s yet untouched, as well.

What makes Mickey Cohen such an enduring figure.

This is a funny question to me. What makes any mob boss memorable? Generally speaking, it’s charisma, and a level of danger not normally associated with a typical person in the public eye. He is one of those guys that everybody knows, or at least suspects, is crooked, and yet, here he is, at the baseball game shaking hands, at the opera in a luxury box, on the front page of a newspaper. Mickey was essentially L.A.’s own, and that makes him unique. Bugsy preceded him, but he was known more for Vegas than anything else (for better or worse, I might add). Add in the mystique of 50’s L.A. and the Mob Squad and Hollywood and everything surrounding it…

Who are some of your favorite crime writers?

Oh, man. Jim Thompson, first and foremost. That’s my man. He wrote so many original and multi-layered novels, and yet, despite that, there are quite a few that come a bit short in certain areas. For every The Getaway or The Grifters or The Transgressors (one of my personal favorites) or The Killer Inside Me, there is one that was written quickly to pay the rent or hold off the taxman (and while I certainly don’t bemoan the reason, that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the deficiencies). Funny enough, however, Chandler is probably more influential, if you’re talking about style and diction. He was able to take the Hammett template, and his Sam Spade novels, and raise it artistically a bit. As for more current stuff, I like Max Allan Collins and his Quarry novels on the Hard Case label, as well as some of the Andrew Vachss stuff as well –particularly the short stories, which just don’t hold any punches at all.

Having said all of this, one of my favorites is the novel Build My Gallows High (1946) by Geoffrey Homes, which then became the film classic Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas.  If I think of one individual summary of the genre, I can think of few better representatives.

A Trunk Full of ZeroesOne of the houses featured in TFOZ is unique to Los Angeles but actually exists. You know it because this is where you grew up. Tell me about that house.

Yeah, that’s a crazy thing. When you think of Los Angeles, even back then, you generally don’t think of huge backyards and streams and crawdads. But I grew up on a block that had those things. The house itself was built in the 20’s (and seemed like it, when it came to creature comforts), a Spanish-style stucco with a red tile roof, and the house comprised maybe 1000 square feet (that may be generous). Storage space was not readily available. On the other hand, it had this huge backyard, with a stone walkway, multiple avocado trees, and a ‘shack’ in the back. If we’re being optimistic, it was a studio. But really, it was maybe 12×20’, with about a 7’ ceiling. My dad is an artist who generally works on a fairly large scale, so it didn’t quite fit the bill. Add in that it did not have any plumbing, had limited lighting, and was a bit of a walk from the house—well, it was simply a shack.

Behind that, however, was a creek that ran between our block and the one to the west, and that creek had wildlife and provided something out of the ordinary in L.A. We (my friends and I) used to go back there and pick out crawdads to pit against one another on the ivy-laden shore. Unfortunately, that rarely gave us whatever we were looking for. As we grew older, we would play baseball with them (when you hit them just right they would split in two)…and while I can still recall rather vividly the sight of such a split, it would be dishonest to say I don’t feel a twinge of guilt at such a recollection as well.

Many of us have our own Los Angeles, I imagine. Collectively, I have little doubt that is what makes a great city.

What’s next in the series?

The next novel picks up about a year after TFOZ  left off. The Vegas session will be left for another time—perhaps as a series of short stories—although it will see the light someday. The desert communities in and around Palm Springs will comprise the bulk of the geography for the novel. This was an area in the late 40’s and all through the 50’s and 60’s that was a bit of a playground for the Hollywood elite as well as West Coast mafia—and it will also tie together some of the loose ends from the first novel, such as the search for the killer of Katie’s mom and whether Harold did or did not set Sonny up, as he thinks. Either way, Sonny has some unfinished business to attend to.