Engel, a former New York Times and L.A. Times reporter (What Would Martin Say?), has expanded the concept of “the wrong man” in his blistering true crime book of a serial rapist’s reign of terror in the Jim Crow Los Angeles of the mid–late 1950s. In the author’s gritty account of a tormented Willie Roscoe Fields, a war-weary veteran once sentenced for attempted rape, he gives a snappy, hard-edged feel to this black man’s terrifying sexual rampage against women snatched from cars in the city’s lovers’ lanes. The insightful narrative puts the brutal, senseless incidents at the core of the book in context with snippets of historical events of racism, betrayal, and police corruption. When Todd Roark, a black LAPD cop, is pulled in for the rapes in retaliation for dating a white woman, only one officer believes in his innocence and sets a clever trap to snare the real criminal. In a crowded field of fine true crime authors, Engel makes sure that all of the dots are connected and justice has its say. –Publishers Weekly
When we think of Los Angeles in the fifties, things like Dragnet, the Brown Derby, Alfred Hitchcock, and movie stars lounging around sun-drenched pools immediately jump to mind. Rarely do crosses burned into lawns, segregated diners, racially motivated beatings, and gruesome murders interrupt this vision of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In Engel’s book, L.A. ’56, he takes us into the depths of one of America’s most segregated cities on the hunt for a serial rapist and shows us this darker side of LA. This true story centers onDetective Danny Galindo, an officer dedicated to freeing his friend and former colleague, who Galindo believes is falsely accused of raping several women. His friend, ex-LAPD officer Todd Roark, has recently been fired from the force for the heinous act of fathering a child with a white woman. With the most tenuous evidence, Roark is imprisoned and the case is considered closed by all involved. Latino officer Galindo takes it upon himself to accomplish a nearly impossible task; convince a predominantly white police force that Roark is innocent, while trying to catch the real rapist who continues to stalk women parked in lover’s lanes with their sweethearts around the city. Engel takes us on a thrilling hunt, chasing a monster through the streets of LA. Walking along side the fascinating Galindo and, alternatively, the twisted stalker hunting his prey in the darkness keeps the tension level high throughout the entire book. Interspersed between these men are articles from newspapers of the day illustrating how radically segregated the city was and how dangerous it could be to break those lines. The author does an excellent job of showing the shining city that tempted so many to it’s sunny streets, as well as, the darkness that lay just beneath it’s surface. A book that will appeal to true crime fans, as well as those who love a great noir tale, L.A. ’56 is a one not to be missed. –CrimeSpree Magazine
True-crime story of rape and racism in postwar Los Angeles.
The narrative has all the elements of a classic film noir and then some: a handsome detective who falls for a beautiful crime victim who narrowly escapes the clutches of a monstrous rapist; the innocent man, railroaded into jail for a capital crime he didn’t commit by the prejudiced police of a corrupt city; a surprise ending with a stakeout and shootout that brings about justice in the end. But this being a story based on real life, the epilogue is not so tidy, least of all for the railroaded suspect, an African-American ex-cop who’d been forced out of the department for dating a white woman. In the summer of 1956, Los Angeles was in the thrall of a serial rapist who trolled lovers’ lanes in tonier districts with a toy sheriff’s badge and a flashlight. He would interrupt young lovers, flash his badge and threaten to arrest the couple for vice crimes. Then he would deposit the young man a few blocks away and return for his prey. On his trail was the talented detective Danny Galindo, a Mexican-American war hero and friend of Dragnet’s Jack Webb, who would feed him the occasional story line. (“Give it to Galindo,” a catchphrase on the show, was Webb’s way of tipping his hat to his LAPD pal.) Galindo worked on some of the city’s most notorious crimes, from the Black Dahlia to the Manson Family murders, but he was particularly proud of this case in which he freed an innocent man and found true love. Engel (Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek, 1994, etc.) gets in the head of the rapist, which may be taking liberties with the facts, but it makes for a riveting, novelistic read.
Disturbing social history in the form of a fast-paced thriller. –Kirkus Reviews
Engel uses a wrongful conviction case to illuminate the racism and corruption rampant in the LAPD before the first reforms. In 1956, Willie Roscoe Fields, who went AWOL during WWII and had been AWOL from the job scene pretty much ever since, found a skill he used over and over again, impersonating a cop in lovers’ lanes, separating couples, and raping the young woman involved, usually white, as he pretended to drive her to the station house. The LAPD pinned the crimes on a black former cop, who had been ostracized for dating a white woman. A Latino detective was the only cop to sense or care that the wrong man had been convicted and sent to prison. His pursuit of justice serves as the backbone of the book. This is both an examination of an especially distressing racist rush to judgment and an intriguing portrait of L.A. and the LAPD in the ’50s. As such, it should interest James Ellroy fans. — Booklist
“Joel Engel’s riveting L.A. ’56: A Devil in the City of Angels has it all: a cast of fascinating real-life characters, police procedural as rough-and-tumble as a fifties film noir and a tale steeped equally with ambition, brutality and rue, as any true Los Angeles story.”
—Megan Abbott, Edgar award-winning author of The End of Everything and Bury Me Deep
“Horrifying, illuminating, and totally engrossing. Joel Engel’s book tells the story of a sex-crazed criminal, an innocent man set up by a racist police force, and the brave cop who stepped forward to stop the man, and uses it to cut deeply into the dark heart of Jim Crow LA. Philip Marlowe, Easy Rawlins, meet Detective Danny Galindo. He — and this book — are the real thing.”
— John Buntin, author, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City
“A gritty, vivid, snapshot of Fifties L.A. and its seamy demimonde.”
—Marvin J. Wolf, bestselling author of Fallen Angels: Chronicles of L.A. Crime and Mystery
Joel Engel calls the tale in this book the “best true story I ever heard,” and it’s easy to understand why. It has big issues (racism, institutional corruption), sensational crimes, unlikely romance, and a whale of a finish. Not to mention characters galore. There’s the villain Willie Fields, a stranger to Los Angeles who prowls lovers’ lanes with a gun and a bogus badge, preying on women. The wrong man Todd Roark, a black former cop with no friends left on the force because of a scandalous interracial relationship. And a genuine hero in Danny Galindo, one of the few Mexican-Americans then on the LAPD, whose career spans the Black Dahlia case to the Tate/LaBianca murders. Galindo’s the only man who believes in Roark’s innocence, and he’s going to have to prove it all by himself.
Engel brings tabloid brio to this Southland saga; L.A.’s history is “written in asphalt” with streets named after movers and shakers, “which means the whole city is either a con or a crime scene.” He nails how show business is woven into the fabric of L.A. life. Galindo regularly sells his exploits to Jack Webb for Dragnet, his surname becoming a running gag on the show. It’s unclear how speculative the sections told from Fields’ point of view are – particularly when, as one figure describes him, he was cursed with stupidity, “the real rare kind that’s stupid through and through and doesn’t know how stupid it is” – but in Engel’s hands he’s a deeply disturbing figure, thinking of each woman he attacks as “that night’s girlfriend,” grateful for his attentions. Engel punctuates his chapters with articles from the California Eagle, Los Angeles’ primary African-American newspaper, spotlighting stories that weren’t covered by any of the city’s white periodicals in the summer of 1956. Hard-hitting and packing surprises to the final pages, you won’t find a better snapshot of life in the City of Angels sixty years ago. —Vince Keenan