Will Beall writes what he experiences and he talks the way he writes. He told me to ask him whatever I wanted and he gave me no BS and was honest about touchy subjects like racism in the LAPD and police corruption. His debut novel L.A. REX was a force to be reckoned with and I hope its just the start of a brilliant career for him. We talked about gangs, how he became a cop in one of the most dangerous areas of California and how his characters were created.
CHUD: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Beall: I did 12 years of
CHUD: Did you always want to be a cop?
Beall: No. I was on my way to becoming a bad journalist. I worked on the school paper at SDSU, worked as a stringer for a couple of
Thought I was Atticus Finch. Chasing down this murderer’s self-serving bullshit, I got further into their homicide investigation than I had any business being. I ended up testifying for the DA at the trial. The guy hung himself in his cell the night before his sentencing. The D.A. who was prosecuting the case – he’s a judge down there now – when it was all over we had a couple of beers and got to talking about it. I was like “Shit, I’m not cut out for journalism.” And he was like “Well, you know, me and some of the other guys were wondering why you aren’t a cop.” I doubt if the guy even remembers the conversation, but he changed the course of my life.
Beall: Once I’d decided to become a cop, it had to be LA. I wanted to be where shit was happening. I was in my twenties, remember, and really fucking dumb. Thought I was Snake Plissken, man, and I wasn’t into traffic tickets. I requested 77th out of the academy, wanted to hear that whackachickawhackachicka music while I chased dudes over fences. And there is a lot of action down there, but that’s not why I stayed.
Once you’ve seen the suffering down there – this third-world violence in the middle of the fifth largest economy in the world – it’s hard to turn your back on it. And there’s an element of small-town police work in South Central. The community is isolated, but also close-knit. You get to know people, to care about them. And I just don’t know how you walk away from that.
CHUD: Did you always want to write?
Beall: For me, it was never about wanting to write. I needed to. I’ve always been compulsive about it. I write longhand. Fill up these yellow legal pads all over the house. Couldn’t stop if I wanted to.
CHUD: How much of the protagonist in L.A. REX is based on you?
Beall: I guess I felt like an impostor early on. I think a lot of us probably do. Both Ben and I stopped pretending after we were faced with real human suffering. So we have that in common. Victims are the ones who really teach you how to be a cop. And I did have a hardass training officer who called me Professor.
We actually had a genuine cartel mole in my academy class – an infiltrator. And Ben is based a little on him. I knew the guy. Got drunk with him. Liked him well enough. We all knew he took these European trips, but we didn’t think anything of it. He said he shopped for cheap fares online. Turned out the guy was this big international drug trafficker. DEA and Interpol had been on to him for a long time – since before he came on the job, I think. They got him at the Canadian border and the guy’s in the federal pen. That blew me away and I got to thinking what that must have been like for him, to live in constant fear of being found out. Did he always think of himself as a criminal masquerading as a cop? Or did his dual identities get all mixed up? That was the genesis of Ben.
CHUD: Are the other characters based on real people?
Beall: I used to try to be coy when people me asked this question, but I’ve been approached by too many guys from both sides of it who recognize themselves in the book. Yeah. If you’re a cop or a gangster or you’ve ever read the newspaper in
CHUD: Where did the title L.A. REX come from?
Beall: Well, Rex means King, right? And there’s a little Oedipus the King riff in the book. And a lot of the book deals with this gang power struggle – like who’s going to be King of L.A. In the end,
CHUD: Tell me about The Eme. Are they as dangerous as they are in Rex?
Beall: The Mexican Mafia started out as a prison gang. They now control most of the Cartel dope that flows into
pay ‘taxes’ to them and even the black gangs are beholden to them in a
way. They’re highly organized, and scary as hell. I wrote a piece for
the Los Angeles Times about them a few weeks back, called Street Gang
Realpolitik. I don’t know. Maybe you can link to it or something. (Ian note: Here it is.)
CHUD: Who in fiction, television, movies, books, gets it right?
Beall: I don’t know if I’m qualified to say who gets it right, but I know what I like. Richard Price is the finest writer of cop fiction on the planet. Hands down. There’s a guy from the sixties named Chester Himes, writes about these cops in
When people ask me about The Shield I always tell them I like that the schnozberries taste like schnozberries on that show. Meaning a lot of it’s familiar, maybe uncomfortably familiar. The Wire is that way too. But I’m still a Reed and Malloy man. I’ll take reruns of Adam-12 anytime.
In film: Narc. Deep Cover. Internal Affairs. Colors. The Seven Ups. And if you missed Harsh Times last year, get thee to a video store.
CHUD: There’s no denying that there’s some racism in the police, stats and personal stories from innocent minorities back it up. What causes this? Can it be stopped?
Beall: I don’t know. We live in a racist society. It’s everywhere, including the job. For me, the most pernicious form of it isn’t the Driving While Black thing – although those stories turn my stomach too. For me what’s worse is the way the system fails to galvanize around black victims of violent crime. The CDC keeps stats on homicide rates for black men – 78 per 100,000. That’s many times what it is for white men. Homicide is the leading killer of young black guys. It’s an epidemic and its bullshit that we haven’t treated it as a serious public health problem. Saddled up my high horse there for a sec there, Sorry.
CHUD: What is your usual day as a detective in the gang homicide unit like?
Beall: You get a call, sometimes in the middle of the night. You roll out to a scene. Duck under the tape and there’s somebody’s kid dead from multiple gunshot wounds. Lead poisoning, what they call ‘natural causes’ in South Central. There are usually forty or fifty people standing around, and sometimes it’s pretty chaotic, almost like a mini-riot. Everybody saw what happened, but nobody talks. They’re afraid to. You try to work around that. Next couple days, you catch someone dirty for dope or a gun and try to gather intel that way.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Informants will only get you so far. Even when you know who did it, unless you can get a witness to take the stand tell a jury, you’re going nowhere. It’s a bitch.
CHUD: There is some pretty extreme violence in your book, was that drawn from real experience?
Beall: Only the goriest stuff. No, I’m actually serious. The violence in this book is all pretty authentic. Except for the sword fight. And the jaguar. Obviously, I made those parts up.
CHUD: Why set it in the mid-nineties?
Beall: I wanted to do a period piece about the department on the eve of The Rampart Corruption Scandal, to include Tupac and Biggie’s murders. It was such a strange time to be a cop and I wanted to take a fantastical snapshot of the city during those years. There’s also just something about fixing the story in time the grounds it for me. I love that the Big Lebowski is period, makes it feel like this great story you just heard in a bar.
CHUD: Is gang violence just going to get worse, in your opinion?
Beall: No comment. I don’t want to jinx it.
CHUD: You’re writing the screenplay for the novel, aren’t you? How is that different?
Beall: The screenplay is collaborative in a way the novel wasn’t. These guys have a definite idea of what they want, but they’ve also been pretty respectful of my work so far. Right now, I’m playing around with music, and other bits of visual vocabulary to carry the audience through a pretty dense story. I think L.A. REX is going to play like a spaghetti western in a way. I can tell you it won’t be like any cop movie you’ve ever seen.
CHUD: Since you decided you had to depict events and people as real, have you encountered problems from fellow officers and detectives?
Beall: Actually, no. I thought I would, but people seem to dig it. There’s an element of social satire in the book – a grain or it – and guys on the job seem to love being in on the joke.
People brag that they’re the inspiration for this character and that character. It’s really their story, in a way.
CHUD: Who is Joe Carcosa?
Beall: Joe Carcosa is kind of the Mephistopheles of the Mexican Mafia. He can make you’re wildest dreams come true, but there’s always a price. I’m flying up to
CHUD: Tell me the main differences between your department and the high-profile ones like RHD?
Beall: RHD handles mostly high-profile, low-propensity murders. O.J. Robert Blake. Exotic Russian Mob stuff. My unit handles low-profile, high-propensity murders. We work the drive-bys and shit that happens every night out here. Sometimes I feel a little like Brody in Jaws: “I can ‘slow ahead’. Come down here and chum some of this shit.”
CHUD: Do movies and T.V. shows like Training Day, Harsh Times, and The Shield understand and get corrupt police officers right? I imagine for some immoral people, the temptation to use the power of their gun and authority would be too much.
Beall: Yeah, we get our shares of assholes. The last one ran around raping prostitutes on duty. He’s doing like 99 years. I know this other guy that used to work a division that borders 77th. He got caught up in something a few years back and the guy’s under federal indictment now, awaiting trial. He was connected to this crew that allegedly took down dope pads off-duty, made it look like they were serving search warrants. They pocketed the money and sold the dope back to the bad guys at cost. It was a great scam until one of them sold to an undercover DEA agent. Some of these guys’ll tell you the department wasn’t fair to them, that Chief Parks made their jobs miserable, and the new LAPD’s kid-glove policies and prohibitively restrictive procedures forced them off the reservation. And I’m like: Yeah, dude, we all know it’s a hard job, but did you have to become a fucking dope dealer? I mean, Jesus! Why couldn’t you just become a lugubrious drunk and let the job destroy your marriage like everybody else?
CHUD: Do you see yourself quitting the force to write full-time?
Beall: Not anytime soon.
CHUD: When do you find time to write?
Beall: Good question. In court, mostly. Or while I’m monitoring these wires, which is great because you have all this authentic dialogue pouring in through your headphones. Before bed. On the can. I manage.
CHUD: Who are your influences?
Beall: I mentioned Richard Price and Stephen Hunter. I also love Cormac McCarthy. And, I know this is going to sound nuts, but early John Carpenter. I mean, Assault on Precinct 13 plays like Adam-12 on Angel Dust. And Escape From New York is like this subversive, post-modern western. There’s this rawness and a strange intimacy about Carpenter’s best stuff that I’d love to capture in my fiction.
CHUD: What’s next for you?
Beall: Dealing with the movie right now. And writing a sequel to L.A. REX called The Lion Hunters. Trying to solve some of these fucking murders. Not necessarily in that order.
CHUD: What does The Lion Hunters mean as a title?
Beall: If L.A. REX is loosely Oedipus the King, The Lion Hunters is sort of Faust. The idea that you can’t outsmart Ol’ Scratch, can’t outrun him. The Lion Hunters takes place ten years after L.A. REX and we see how Ben’s changed, hardened. There’s still a lot of South Central, but also a lot that happens on a wider stage. Vegas.
CHUD: What’s the best bit of advice you were given when writing Rex?
Beall: I kept it a secret, so nobody gave me any advice about it. My editor (who’s a great guy by the way) told me to tone it down. But I mostly ignored him.
Huge thanks to Will Beall for taking the time to talk with us. If you’re in the mood for good crime fiction, pick up a copy of L.A. REX at Amazon.com.