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Crime Writer Creates A Hero For Her Beloved, Much-Maligned South LA

Hall sits in a sunny bay window to write. "My first drafts are always in long hand, on legal pads," she explains. "I love putting pen to paper." (Andre Ellis)

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.

But something happened to speed up her schedule.

"When I was 33 years old," Hall says, "I was diagnosed with a rare type of breast cancer. And I was pregnant. And it was terrifying."

She was two months pregnant with her much-desired first child. And she and her husband, David, were stunned. With Hall's doctors, they worked together to beat the disease.

"I made it through, I survived," says Hall. "And I realized that life is not guaranteed, and that I don't want to wait until 50 to get a car that I want; because I may not make it to age 50. You never know, " she shrugs. "And so now, I'm driving the car I always wanted."

Surviving cancer also freed Hall to write her first mystery. Before that, she had wanted to write a detective novel but was afraid to because she wasn't a cop. What if she got something wrong? Facing her mortality changed everything.

"Having faced that, that's the biggest fear anyone could have," she says. "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."

The book was published last month in the U.S., and earlier this year in the U.K. Its heroine is Elouise "Lou" Norton, a scary-smart and fiercely ambitious homicide detective — and the only woman and African-American on her Los Angeles police homicide detail.

The book opens when Lou is called to a new condominium complex in South LA to investigate a teen Jane Doe who was found hanging in a closet. Lou suspects the real estate mogul building the complex is involved, and may also 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 murder drives the plot.

'The Tall, Black Girl From The Jungle'

During a reading at Eso Won, a well-regarded bookstore in the cultural heart of black LA, Hall tells the audience that Lou reminded her of a character from the 1991 movie Silence of the Lambs. She says Jodie Foster's FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and Lou are both poised and confident, but they come from hard beginnings, which can be a sore spot.

Hall says that, while she was writing Lou, she kept thinking of a scene from the film in which Hannibal Lecter quickly deconstructs Starling while she's trying to profile him: "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes?" he says. "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?"

"I wanted ... [Lou] to have some of that 'Yes, you overcame ... but you're still the tall, black girl from the Jungle,' " Hall says.

The Jungle, as both residents and cops sardonically call it, is the neighborhood Lou comes from, and the name has myriad meanings. Hall reads from Lou's description of the Jungle for her audience, as they nod in recognition:

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 Sixties, a neighborhood boasting twisty streets lined with banana palms, roomy apartments and swimming pools.

Hall is able to describe Lou's childhood neighborhood so accurately because it was her neighborhood, too. She grew up in a second-story Jungle apartment across the street from sunny Jim Gilliam Park. She says the neighborhood was nicknamed "the Jungle" in the '60s because of the lush tropical foliage that surrounded each of the area's apartment buildings. "And then [in the] late '70s came PCP and gang members, and it took on a whole new, different name of Jungle. And it got a little wild because of drug dealing and gang banging and all the rest of it."

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 Eight neighborhood — the same neighborhood Lou patrols.

"Lou has that same kind of duality," Hall says. "She's very much from the neighborhood, but she's not of the neighborhood." Not anymore, at any rate.

There Are Heroes In South LA, Just As There Are Villains

Hall knows people think certain things when they think of South LA: black, poor, crime-ridden. One of the main reasons she wanted to write about the area is to show it has more facets than outsiders commonly assume.

"I want people to realize that, one, there's a story in this part of Los Angeles and that there are heroes in this world, just as there are villains," she says. "And a lot of times, [in] LA, you see Echo Park, you see Hollywood; but you don't see Southwest Los Angeles, and you don't see cops who have great compassion, like Lou does, and cops who come from the areas in which they patrol. So I want people to not make assumptions about this city and about the people who live here."

Hall herself lives in South LA, about a 10-minute drive away from the Jungle in the mostly unknown neighborhood of View Park. Here, large houses nestle in the hills just above her childhood home. She says she used to look up at them through her kitchen window and dream while she washed the dishes.

"I grew up in the Jungle looking at, you know, very big homes on the hills," she says. "And l knew black folks lived there and I knew that they were wealthy and I aspired to that. I wanted to be up that hill."

And now she is. Her butter-yellow living room is hung with family portraits — her siblings, her parents, her wedding pictures and a photo of her and her 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.

"I start my drafts in longhand; I write on legal pads," Hall says. "I love pencils and pens."

Rachel Howzell Hall never gets writer's block — she knows better than most that time is not a given. Instead, she spends her time on what she thinks counts, like enjoying her family and her friends, and writing novels that show a more complete view of her beloved Los Angeles — the city that people often drive by on the freeway, but have never bothered to investigate.

"I love Los Angeles and everything that it has to offer. The houses, the weather, the diversity," Hall says, making a big arc with one arm. "And I'm looking forward to sharing it with anyone who wants to read about it in my books."

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Transcript

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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