1. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
If you like your hard-boiled crime novels full of similes with a side of action, look no further than Chandler. A colorful read, The Big Sleep is notable less for its corrupt Los Angeles cops and mobsters and its high-drama plot and more for Chandler’s unwavering bent for likening.
Recommended for: People who enjoy their similes like a dirty cop enjoys a bribe.
2. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
Plascencia introduces us to an El Monte at once grounded in reality and thoroughly enchanted. The novel complicates our understanding of metaphors: Merced de Papel is a woman who’s made of paper, and the primary plot involves the rebellion of a gang of carnation pickers against the planet Saturn. With its multiple levels of narration, the book will remind you that the fantastic and the absurd are sometimes the strongest vehicle for truth.
Recommended for: People who are down with magic realism.
3. City of Quartz by Mike Davis
In his breathtaking book, Davis chronicles the history of Los Angeles as a history of conflict — Los Angeles emerges as a city of haves and have-nots with deeply racist roots. Starting from the 19th century, his sweeping take contextualizes the growth of the city and the problems that continue to plague its people.
Recommended for: Those who’d like an explanation.
4. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (with Curt Gentry)
If you want to dive into the dark side of late ’60s L.A., it doesn’t get darker than Helter Skelter. It’s a near-700-page tome chronicling Charles Manson, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the death of the freewheeling California ’60s: a fascinating true-crime classic written in part by the prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial Vincent Bugliosi.
Recommended for: Anyone obsessed with the cult of personality.
5. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
A portrait of rich, nihilistic ’80s L.A. with a side of heaping mountains of cocaine. Written with a dead-eyed, detached tone, Less Than Zero was a 21-year-old Ellis’ potshot at the vapid over-moneyed youth of the Reagan era. It’s Porsches and fancy restaurants but also punk clubs and casual, bored sex. Warning: It might make you feel like human existence is annoying and worthless.
Recommended for: Gen Xers and reflexive Gen X haters.
6. Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie
A native of an L.A. County suburb, Waldie gives us both a history of suburban planning and a memoir in Holy Land. It is a restrained book of very brief chapters, most no more than one or two pages long; in its examination of Lakewood, it challenges the dominant narrative of the suburbs as stifling or escapist.
Recommended for: Suburbanites, current or former.
7. The Studio by John Gregory Dunne
Dunne’s account of his 12 months shadowing executives at 20th Century Fox is by turns humorous, serious, and scandalous. With his sober journalist’s eye, he lays bare the vulgar nature of power and the hypocrisy of Hollywood hotshots.
Recommended for: Those who suspect Hollywood should not be taken seriously but have never quite known why.
8. Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl
An equally bleak and funny memoir about Stahl’s careening time living in L.A. as a magazine and TV writer while addicted to heroin. Stahl had some harrowing down-and-out moments, but his wicked sense of humor makes Permanent Midnight a shockingly fun read considering he was strung out writing episodes of Alf.
Recommended for: Fans of dark humor, Twin Peaks, and redemptive drug confessionals.
9. Bathwater Wine by Wanda Coleman
Coleman’s wrenching poems are seductive and sad and angry and transcendent. Her writing on poverty and racism in Los Angeles is haunting; her account of a black woman’s transformation(s), exquisite.
Recommended for: Poetry lovers and people who aren’t afraid of tenderness or rage.
10. Counter Intelligence by Jonathan Gold
Gold has been eating his way through Los Angeles’ holes-in-the-wall since the ’80s. This volume reprints the best of his long-running LA Weekly column, but the book is more than just restaurant reviews: Gold illustrates the city’s ethnic pockets with his tongue. Of particular note is his vivid account of eating a live shrimp.
Recommended for: Foodies.
11. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
West’s legendary, lyrical L.A. takedown, focusing on the seedy deviousness of the early Hollywood machine. Searing, poignant, and wonderfully written.
Recommended for: Hollywood skeptics in search of a novelistic thrill.
12. Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita
An old laborer brings a magical orange from Mexico to L.A., dragging with it the entire Tropic of Cancer. L.A. is nearly ruined by hellish traffic jams. Tent cities sprout on highways. An old Japanese veteran conducts a magical symphony from a highway overpass. Whether that all sounds overambitious to you depends on your tastes, but Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange may be the pomo-est Systems Novel you’ll read. That tartest joys, though, come in the moments when Emi, a Japanese newscaster, rails against the sloppy cultural appropriations she sees around California.
Recommended for: Fans of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. People who actually played all four CDs of The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka simultaneously.
13. The Dirt by Mötley Crüe and Neil Strauss
“Looking down on it from the helicopter, with a bottle of Jack in my left hand, a bag of pills in my right hand, and a blonde head bobbing up and down in my lap, I felt like the king of the world.” —Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, Los Angeles’ bozo crown princes of leathered-up Sunset Strip hedonism. The Dirt is almost impossibly debaucherous and a rollicking good read.
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to live vicariously through one of the sexiest, druggiest and rockiest tales ever.
14. The White Album by Joan Didion
Although Didion’s White Album isn’t exclusively about Los Angeles, the brutal and consuming California writer’s examinations of the city and state capture something of the contradiction and alienation of the West Coast.
Recommended for: The quiet and anxious.
15. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
Ellroy’s classic L.A. cops ’n’ corruption tale chronicling the old seedy Hollywood. It’s all the things great crime fiction can be: terse and “hard-boiled” but also somehow sprawling and unpredictable.
Recommended for: Crime fiction fanatics; people who saw the movie.
16. The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty
Poet Paul Beatty’s whip-smart first novel is the tale of Gunnar Kaufman, raised the “funny cool black guy” in Santa Monica. It’s a lyrical investigation of race, identity, gentrification, and the LAPD, told with a viciously witty poet’s brio.
Recommended for: Fans of poetry, identity politics.
17. Women by Charles Bukowski
Bukowski’s third novel follows his alter ego Henry Chinaski as he slumps around Hollywood womanizing and being grumpy and poignant. You know the baggage you’re getting with Bukowski, but Women is also a great portrait of sleazy, golden, wonderful L.A.
Recommended for: Open-minded, sparse prose-loving people with refined cognitive dissonance.
18. Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
Reading Block’s YA novel feels like stepping into a dream where an L.A. of the ’80s is the background and it’s at once quixotic and gritty. The story follows the capricious teenager Weetzie Bat and her gay friend Dirk all over town, and it will make you want to stroll the Venice Canals, put your hands in Marilyn’s prints, or eat a greasy Oki Dog.
Recommended for: Gen Xers, Gen Yers nostalgic for things they never experienced, punks.
19. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham
Published in 1971, Four Ecologies is British architectural historian Reyner Banham’s rather optimistic investigation of L.A.’s beach, the freeways, the flatlands, and the foothills. I mean, he calls the freeway system, “one of the greater works of Man.” In addition to the nitty-gritty architectural analysis, Banham digs into the historical context of the city’s formation and mutation with an engaging narrative thrust.
Recommended for: Architecture junkies who like ‘em some prose.
20. If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes
Himes’ rattling look at racism in the 1940s tells the story of the broken promise of racial equality in mid-century Los Angeles through the eyes of Bob Jones; racism infects every corner of the black protagonist’s life. The novel explores the pervasive effects of systemic racism and segregation (problems that continue to shape Los Angeles).
Recommended for: Readers who’d like to dismantle white supremacy.
21. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Called “the first and best novel of the gay liberation movement” by Edmund White, A Single Man follows a day in the life of a British professor in mid-century L.A., coping with the death of his longtime partner and yearning for the easy sense of belonging his neighbors and students seem to enjoy. It’s a microcosmic novella animated more by Isherwood’s stately wit and frank appeals of loneliness than by plot.
Recommended for: Dashing curmudgeons, classic American realism buffs, folks who yearn for an L.A. that isn’t all just 24-karat waterslides.