The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles

The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles

by Ken Kuhlken

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In 1926, when musician Tom Hickey reads in a broadside about a lynching the Los Angeles newspapers failed to report, and discovers the Negro victim was an old friend, he goes to his neighbor Leo Weiss, an LAPD detective. Leo confirms that, officially, the lynching didn’t occur.

Tom has a dance orchestra to lead and a wild younger sister to raise. Yet he


In 1926, when musician Tom Hickey reads in a broadside about a lynching the Los Angeles newspapers failed to report, and discovers the Negro victim was an old friend, he goes to his neighbor Leo Weiss, an LAPD detective. Leo confirms that, officially, the lynching didn’t occur.

Tom has a dance orchestra to lead and a wild younger sister to raise. Yet he decides to investigate the murder. Since the lynching occurred in Echo Park, across the street from evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple, he goes there looking for clues and is   greeted and watched by an usher who follows him after the service and continues to shadow him daily.

The investigation earns Tom beatings, gunfire meant to dissuade him, and warnings from Leo, a speakeasy owner, and a Klansman, that he’s made formidable enemies. Among them may be infamous Police Chief Two Gun Davis, Examiner publisher and political heavyweight William   Randolph Hearst, and Harry Chandler, owner of the Times, who owns more land than any man in the world.

After Sister Aimee announces that on November 2, election day, she will preach a sermon entitled “The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles,” Tom deduces that the cover up may involve local politics, perhaps a   ballot referendum that will decide who the city’s future belongs to: the railroads, whose plans include subways and elevated trains; or the oil, automobile, and suburban development interests, devoted to building highways.

Meanwhile, Tom also discovers that the key to the murder, as is too often the case, lies close to home.  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
James Ellroy fans will welcome Kuhlken's intriguing sixth California Century mystery (after 2008's The Vagabond Virgins). Set in 1926 and the first in the series chronologically, this entry focuses on the early career of PI Tom Hickey. Outraged to learn that a black friend has been lynched in L.A.'s Echo Park, news that the mainstream media has suppressed, Hickey risks his day job as a meat salesman to look into the killing. Hickey explores possible links to crooked cops, the Ku Klux Klan, city hall, newspaper moguls William Randolph Hearst and Harry Chandler, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who recently resurfaced after a mysterious five-month disappearance. Kuhlken mixes historical and fictional characters with an ease that will remind many of Max Allan Collins's Nate Heller series (True Crime, etc.). He's equally adept at melding the murder inquiry with Hickey's struggles with his dysfunctional family. (May)
From the Publisher
“A nicely orchestrated rescue set in simpler times, with sturdy prose, nonstop action, and steady suspense.”   –Library Journal of The Angel Gang
“Kuhlken brings the social and cultural scene of the period vividly to life.” – Publisher’s Weekly of The Do-Re-Mi

"Kuhlken mixes historical and fictional characters with an ease that will remind many of Max Allan Collins's Nate Heller series (True Crime , etc.). He's equally adept at melding the murder inquiry with Hickey's struggles with his dysfunctional family."  —Publisher's Weekly

"Kuhlken demonstrates his command of keeping a story moving with a meticulously thought-out plot while populating it with believable characters. Fans of Les Roberts's Saxon novels will enjoy this title for its similar L.A. ambience. It will also appeal to readers interested in early 20th-century California history." —Library Journal

"...readers will enjoy this fast-paced historical amateur sleuth mystery." —Midwest Book Review

Library Journal
In 1926 Los Angeles, Tom Hickey's black mentor and friend is found hanging in Echo Park, across the street from evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's temple. Tom fears the KKK killed Frank, but the newspapers and the police deny that there was a lynching. So Tom sets out to uncover the truth and stop a race riot. VERDICT This prequel to Shamus finalist Kuhlken's Hickey family historical series (and the sixth entry, after The Vagabond Virgins) reveals how the Hickey Detective Agency comes to be. Kuhlken demonstrates his command of keeping a story moving with a meticulously thought-out plot while populating it with believable characters. Fans of Les Roberts's Saxon novels will enjoy this title for its similar L.A. ambience. It will also appeal to readers interested in early 20th-century California history. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ 1/09.]
Kirkus Reviews
An unreported lynching spurs a musician to action. Los Angeles in 1926 has four supreme power brokers: rival newsmen Hearst and Chandler; rogue police chief Two Gun Davis; and charismatic, showboating evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. None of them is eager to acknowledge that Frank Gaines has been strung up in Echo Park, right across from Aimee's Temple. But a chance reading of the Forum, an underground leaflet, brings the outrage to the attention of Tom Hickey, a white musician eking out a living for himself and his rowdy young sister Florence. Hickey and Gaines had been friends, and Hickey can't let the assault pass in the silence everyone else is sharing. His investigation, which gets some help from LAPD detective Leo Weiss, leads past the Klan, union busters and spurious business dealings to a cover-up of a poisoning centered on romantic philandering that implicates Hickey's own mother, Milly, a wildly chaotic, abusive woman who tormented her children until they finally ran away. Hickey will be tailed, beaten up and shot at; Weiss will be removed from the force; and Florence will nearly be brought to a complete mental collapse by the actions of Milly and her latest paramour. Kuhlken (The Vagabond Virgins, 2008, etc.) overloads his plot beyond his ability to keep the tangled lines clear and sprinkles 1926 decor with the gusto of a tour bus guide.

Product Details

Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date:
California Century Series
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles

By Ken Kuhlken

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2010 Ken Kuhlken
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59058-736-2

Chapter One

Tom Hickey rented in a court near the intersection of Wilshire and Normandie, halfway between downtown Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. He shared the cottage with his little sister Florence. She was seventeen. Six years ago,Tom had snatched her away from their mother, Millicent Hickey, a seamstress for Universal Pictures.

He hadn't spoken to Milly since the day he and Florence left home with nothing but his clarinet and a suitcase of clothes between them. At first he believed their mother would track them down, have him arrested or beaten by a gang of her fellow spiritualists. But all these years, she had left him alone.

He credited Leo Weiss for that blessing.

When Tom was in fourth grade, Milly rented a two-bedroom bungalow on Orange between Highland and La Brea. The owners, who lived next door, were Leo and Violet Weiss. Leo was a detective with the LAPD.

At first, Leo and Vi appreciated Milly. She kept the house spotless, and her passion for gardening transformed the yard into a wild yet orderly scene reminiscent of Eden. But soon, Vi caught Milly whipping Tom with a rope while shouting in "tongues." Leo warned her, politely, hoping to keep Tom and Florence next door where he and Vi could observe and react.

Then Vi rescued Tom when Milly lashed him to a fence post in the back yard and left him while she ran errands. For that offense, Leo threatened jail next time. Milly moved them to Hollywood, several miles away.

Tom snatched his sister when he was sixteen, Florence eleven. A few days afterward, he reported to Leo what his mother had done to the girl. Then Leo informed Milly that although minors running from their guardians was illegal, torture was more so, and got rewarded by long prison terms.

* * *

Now, in 1926, Tom was a bandleader. Before he turned twenty-two, the other musicians drafted him, though most of them were twice his age.

Tonight they roamed around the vacant storefront owned by Archie the drummer's uncle, trading jokes and filling the room with a smoky blue haze.

Tom hoped a high C would grab their attention. He lifted the clarinet to his lips.

Then Oz came loping in. He carried the tattered case that protected his alto sax, and a fistful of leaflets. He shoved a leaflet at each of the boys. As Tom took his, Oz said, "None of you white folks go telling me the Klan don't be here out west."

The leaflet was a broadside entitled the Forum.

It declared:

LYNCHING. We who ask to live in peace; who came to this City of Angels hoping to leave the terror behind; who judge no man without cause; who take only our meager share of the promise this nation affords to those unbound by color; who wish to believe that justice will someday prevail, must now pause to weep. On Monday, the 11th day of October, a gentleman who shall here go unnamed went out walking in Echo Park just as sunlight spilled over Angelino Heights. In the glare of dawn, a vision appeared. So terrible it was, the gentleman believed he had not risen but was in the throes of a nightmare.

A dark man hung limp from the live oak not ten yards off Park Avenue, not fifty yards from Sister Aimee Semple McPherson's majestic temple. Before this heinous act, the "Invisible Empire," resurrected by Mister D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," would have us believe that in our locale they limit their hooded activities to preserving the Good Book's values by smashing the furniture and windows of speakeasies, flogging the occasional adulterer, marching to protest the election of our first Negro assemblyman, and rallying voters to elect candidates opposed to unfettered growth. Now, with one act, despicable in both substance and symbolism, they have declared war against peace and decency. The test of a community lies not in the occurrence of sinister deeds. Evil will always live among us. No, the test of our mettle lies in our reaction to manifestations of evil. In the case of this deed, more vicious than simple murder because it targets the spirit of a people, we who seek truth, peace and justice must mourn to our depths more than the loss of an innocent. The implications of the lynching go so deep, they mock the very concept of justice. When public servants attempt to obliterate the truth, they shatter our dreams of a world that could be. Members of the Los Angeles Police Department carried off the body in such haste, only the one early-rising gentleman witnessed the shameful deed. Let the reader judge: has the briefest account of this heinous crime appeared in the Times, the Herald, or the Examiner? To our knowledge, no publication but the Forum has risked offending the powerful by reporting the murder of Franklin Gaines.

The floor beneath Tom rose and fell, as if another earthquake had struck. He back-stepped and leaned against the brick wall. "Frank Gaines," he muttered.

Chapter Two

Tom would've gone directly from rehearsal to check on Florence. According to his rule, she was to walk straight home following her after-school job sweeping and ushering at the Egyptian Cinema in Hollywood. But the broadside changed Tom's plans. He caught the streetcar on Pico, transferred to the coach line up Western and Wilshire and hustled the several blocks through the drizzle on slippery pavement to the neighborhood where he once lived.

The Weiss home was a Craftsman bungalow with a low-pitched roof and a rock walled porch extending the width of the house. Leo came to the door in blue cotton pajamas, no robe. He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head through a tangled web of thinning hair.

Though Tom hadn't seen the man in months, since early summer, he didn't waste an instant on pleasantries. He gave Leo's meaty hand a quick shake and said, "Who put a lid on the Echo Park lynching?"

Leo peered at Tom as if to assure himself this was no impostor. He scratched his head again, then turned and flopped into a rose-patterned easy chair with doilies on the arms. "Sit down."

Tom entered and shut the door behind him.


From his hip pocket, Tom produced the Forum, which he tossed. Leo caught it, raised and held it close enough so he didn't need his glasses. While he read, Tom watched for a reaction but saw the profile of a poker face.

Leo folded the broadside in half and set it on the chair arm. He looked up and shrugged.

"How about it?" Tom said.

"Meaning you want to know did it happen?"

"Meaning I know it happened. What I want is to know what you cops are going to do about it?"

Leo stared above, as though tracing the route of a crack that bisected the plaster ceiling. "What's it to you?"

Tom folded his hands to keep from shaking a fist. "Besides that a man's dead, and no doubt a whole lot of colored folks are barricading their doors, and a murderer, or a gang of them, is on the loose?"

"Yeah, besides all that," Leo said. "See, last month a Chinese couple got robbed. The creep raped the gal and dumped both of them off the Santa Monica pier. You must've heard, but you didn't come running to me."

"Frank Gaines was a pal of mine."


"An old pal," Tom said. "Long ago, at the mission on Azusa Street, Frank used to take me down the block to the Arkansas Diner, all those times Milly couldn't break away from the Holy Ghost long enough to feed us. Frank was a gentleman. Not a morsel of spite or bitterness in him. Good will toward everybody."

"I see."

"Meaning you're going to tell me who put the lid on?"

"Who says I'm in the know?"

"I'm asking, are you?"

Leo shook his head.

"Okay then, are you going to find out?"

Leo drummed his fingers on the chair arms. "No."

"Oh," Tom said. "Orders from Two Gun Davis?"

The way Leo grimaced meant Tom had stepped out of bounds, which didn't stop him. "You're not a fan of his, are you?"

"He's my boss."

"Yeah, and I hear he's trigger happy as Billy the Kid."

Leo said, "The city's crawling with bad guys. Chief Davis is following the will of the people."

"Which people?"

"Most of them. Listen, back when you belonged to Milly, in one year, more than a hundred of us got killed. Maybe you recall?"


"So when Davis sends the message about the crook you fail to kill tonight could be the one kills you tomorrow, we've got reason to heed his warning."

"And to follow his orders, even if he tells you to cover up a lynching?"

"Some would do just that." Leo waved the Forum. "According to this, police were involved." Leo stood and plodded toward the kitchen. As he passed a small marble topped table with a chessboard laid out, a game interrupted in progress, he slid the Forum under the edge of the chessboard. "Tom, I work for the city of Los Angeles. I don't run it. That's other men's job."

Tom had followed, a footstep behind. "And if you get uppity about it, you'll soon be out selling cutlery door to door. I'm aware of that. I'm no freshman. The thing is, as you have told me on more than one occasion, every man's got to choose sides. If you side with the rats just because they run the city, it'll prove you're not the guy I believed you were." Tom choked down the lump in his throat. He wanted to say, And that would break my heart. But a look at Leo's eyes told him he'd said enough.

They stood nose to nose. "You sound mighty righteous, boy."

The word "boy" pinched a nerve. He couldn't remember Leo ever calling him boy. He leaned on a wall and ordered himself to act civil. "Back when I was a churchgoing youngster, Frank Gaines and some other good folks pounded into my head I should do what the churchgoers say, not what they do."

"And what do they say?"

"Seek the truth, for one thing."

A smile broke slowly out of Leo's stony face. "And where would you go to start seeking."

Tom gave up the wall and stood straight. "Angelus Temple."

"Why's that?"

"Frank was lynched not fifty yards from the place, and I'll bet plenty of his brothers and sisters from Azusa Street are among Sister Aimee's flock. I could give you a few names. You can start there."

"I'm not going to start anywhere, Tom. You're the truth seeker. I'm just a cop."

After a few speechless moments, Tom said, "I've got to check on Florence."

Chapter Three

Tom's day job was selling meat. He serviced restaurants, meat markets, and corner groceries from Pasadena to Santa Monica and south past Anaheim. He drove a 1921 Model T Ford with a shed-sized icebox perched behind the cab. The route paid $38 weekly, more than what the butchers made. Because Tom signed new accounts and customers admired him for having been a USC fullback, even though he'd only lasted a year.

He'd started with Alamo Meat as a janitor, swabbing the floor, scraping blood and bone scraps off the cutting boards, scouring the knives and cleavers, and airing the place as best he could. Six years ago, the morning after he and his sister escaped from Milly, he'd gone there to give Bud Gallagher the news.

He'd known Bud as his dad's best pal. After Charlie Hickey vanished, when Tom was barely six, Milly set out to find him, carrying baby Florence and dragging Tom. Charlie had worked beside Bud as an Alamo butcher. The rare evenings he arrived home late, Milly accused him of carousing with Gallagher.

She raged into Alamo Meat. The way Tom remembered his mother's assault on Bud, if he hadn't stood holding a cleaver, Milly might've snatched up one of the knives and run him through.

Gallagher swore he knew nothing about Charlie's disappearance. Before Milly gave up, she paused for a dash into the ladies' room, which gave Bud a chance to wrest Tom's promise to come to him if troubles got bigger than even a tough little man could handle on his own.

A dozen times between Charlie's disappearance and the escape from Milly, Tom had gone to Alamo Meat. At first he believed he only wanted to visit sights and smells that recalled his father. Later he admitted, only to himself, that Bud gave him strength and fortitude. Like Leo did. They were formidable men. Leo had taught Him to box and throw, catch and hit a baseball. Bud coached him to sling a football, one of the skills that earned Tom entrance to USC.

Six years ago, Bud convinced the boss to hire the sixteen-year-old. Tom went to work as apprentice to Seymour Asberry, the colored fellow who led Tom and Florence to the Jefferson Boulevard flat next door to his own, and whose wife Clara sat with Florence evenings while Tom worked. It was Clara, Tom believed, who convinced Florence her charms would one day fail, but her education wouldn't. Wild as she'd become, she made higher marks than Tom had.

Besides his wages, Tom found a measure of peace at Alamo Meat, even during his despair over leaving USC. And while swapping anecdotes and jokes with Bud Gallagher, he often got lifted by a distant hope that some offhand remark would provide the clue that might lead to his father.

* * *

The day following his visit to Leo, Tom used his lunchtime to detour off his route. He turned from Hollywood Boulevard onto Ivar, then crawled the truck up the block past the Knickerbocker Hotel, enduring horns and shouts. All the curbside parking was filled. Sidewalk crowds spilled between the parked vehicles and into the street. The Knickerbocker, a masterpiece of Beaux Arts architecture, was a stars' lair. Tourists and newcomers stood on tiptoes, leaned on cars, or paced in circles, awaiting a thrill.

As a native, to make sense of newcomers, Tom grew up sorting them into types. Aside from the few who'd found their pot of gold in films or finance, they were: folks, lost souls, and crazies.

The folks had found something here, maybe a tract home with a driveway for their Flivver, or faith in a God, raw food, rite, or regimen. The lost souls roamed the streets, staring with desperate hope for a glimpse of some movie idol or other grand vision, and in danger of joining the crazies. Not the soldiers who never escaped the war, whom Tom suspected remained lost souls forever. The crazies were born dreamers whose dreams got so viciously trampled all they had left was outraged vanity that sent them on a hunt for revenge.

Tom hadn't come looking for stars, but to chat with Raleigh Washburn, who shined shoes outside the Knickerbocker and remembered the Azusa Street revival as well as anyone, and never wearied of talking about those days.

As always, Raleigh looked weary but glad, as if he'd just finished a race. His hands were restless, so his trousers and red and green checked vest bore smudges of brown and black.

Tom didn't mention the lynching. He only asked, while Raleigh buffed his brogans, "You remember Frank Gaines, used to preach now and then at the mission?"

Raleigh gave him bug eyes, then shook his head and commenced a nervous titter. No doubt he'd read the Forum and wasn't apt to trust his thoughts to anybody white. Tom, assuming an offhanded manner, shifted the topic to the disappearance and resurrection that, every day since summer, claimed the headlines. "How about Sister Aimee? Do you buy her kidnapping story?"

"Hush," Raleigh said. "That gal been two months out on the town, is all. You know, Tom, ain't nobody pure holy."

Tom nodded. "Say, you've been to any services over at Angelus Temple?"

"Yessir. Quite a number of us from the mission find our way to the temple on occasion. Say, Mister Tom, you heard about a lady coming to town, a magician, she claim to be. Going to hold one of them séances, on the night of Halloween, call on poor Mister Rudolph Valentino. Mister Rudolph, he been a generous friend to me. Lady oughtn't to call on him. Ought to let him rest in peace."

A séance to contact Valentino would collect a sizeable mob, Tom supposed, rich as the city was in suckers. He would've bet on Milly's being part of the mob.

He said, "Those folks going to Angelus Temple, how about a few names?"

Raleigh supplied a half dozen names, which Tom memorized and jotted down upon his return to the meat wagon.


Excerpted from The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles by Ken Kuhlken Copyright © 2010 by Ken Kuhlken. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ken Kuhlken’s novels have been honored as finalist for the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel, won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First Novel competition, and been chosen as a finalist for the Shamus Best Novel Award.

His California Century novels, featuring detective Tom Hickey and sons, are: The Loud Adios (1943), The Venus Deal (1942), The Angel Gang (1949), The Do-Re-Mi (1971), The Vagabond Virgins (1979), and coming in May 2010, The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles (1926).

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