As a senior librarian at Teen’Scape, the young adult department at the Los Angeles Public Library, Mary McCoy is an expert on all things YA. And this month, she added the title of author to her resume. McCoy’s vivid, clever, heart-pounding debut, Dead to Me, is set in 1940s Hollywood, aka the Golden Age. Of course, any noir fan worth his or her day rate—plus expenses—can tell you the Golden Age was tarnished. Appropriately, corrupt cops, desperate starlets, shady publicists, opportunistic private eyes, dogged reporters, and a (San Fernando) Valley’s worth of secrets fill this tale. Sixteen-year-old Alice’s beloved older sister, Annie, ran away four years ago, and has resurfaced lying comatose in the hospital after a brutal beating. Equipped with only her determination and a talent for code-breaking, Alice resolves to solve the mystery and avenge her sister, even if the truth hits painfully close to home.
I asked Mary about her favorite noir films and books, how she made 1940s Los Angeles come alive, and what childrens’ and YA books she wants for her library shelves.
Why did you decide to set the book in 1948? Were there specific events that year you wanted to capitalize on, or include as part of the story and its background?
Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia, was murdered in 1947, and I wanted to mention that crime in Dead To Me. There were some other crimes and scandals going on in LA around that time that I wanted as part of the backdrop as well. Corruption was rampant in the LAPD during the 1940s, and one of the most shocking cases involved a Hollywood madam named Brenda Allen. She was able to manage a prostitution syndicate of over 100 girls in part because her boyfriend was a member of the LAPD vice squad! Another scandal of the late 1940s I wanted to include involved a minor starlet named Lila Leeds. Her film career imploded after she was arrested and jailed for smoking marijuana with Robert Mitchum (of course, Mitchum’s career recovered with no problems).
Alice is a bit of a loner who enjoys detective stories by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Are you a fan of them as well? What are some of your favorite books and films from that era, and which, if any, influenced Dead to Me?
Yes, I am! However, my favorite author of detective stories is Ross MacDonald, who wrote the Lew Archer mysteries. (If you’re curious, The Way Some People Die and The Galton Case are two of the best in the series.) Some of my favorite movies from that time period are In A Lonely Place, The Petrified Forest, and D.O.A. (the 1950 version, not the 80s remake with Dennis Quaid). I was also influenced by more contemporary noir written by women, especially Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You and Denise Hamilton’s The Last Embrace.
On a similar note, which nonfiction books did you most rely on for research into the time period? Which ones did you most enjoy? (I recently read and enjoyed TINSELTOWN: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, by William J. Mann.)
Oh, wow! I need to read Tinseltown IMMEDIATELY—it sounds amazing. My nonfiction bible for Dead To Me was City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s, by Otto Friedrich. It’s an extremely addictive, gossipy Hollywood history that also happens to be very well-researched, and that combination almost never happens!
Living in L.A., did you ever traverse the paths your characters take throughout the city? And if you could live at any point in time in Los Angeles, what era would you pick and why?
A lot of the places in Dead To Me are still standing: the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital is now the Church of Scientology on Sunset Boulevard. Musso & Frank Grill, where Alice meets Cy and where Humphrey Bogart was a regular, is still around (I went twice for research purposes…and steak). Millie’s apartment building on Lexington Avenue is a real place, and Elizabeth Short actually lived there for a brief time. And since Alice’s dad is the head of publicity at a movie studio, I found out where the head of publicity at Paramount Pictures lived in the 1940s and had Alice’s family live in the same neighborhood.
LA’s history is glamorous and fascinating and exciting, but it’s also easy to idealize. I’m glad I live in LA right now and not 70 years ago. It’s still a city with a lot of problems, but I feel like we’re working on them.
Scenes in which a girl tends to the wounds of the hero are practically mandatory in noir and action-adventure movies. I absolutely LOVE that you subvert this trope by reversing the genders, and having Cy clean up Alice after she’s injured. Was this a conscious choice, or something that came about naturally in the course of the story?
My editor had asked me to expand on the chemistry between Alice and Cy, which was tricky because how do you develop a love interest when the novel is set over just a couple of days? And when the main character has a black eye and a bruised jaw and a big cut on her face? However, I knew my editor at Disney was right, and there was a spark between these two characters that I needed to explore, but I also knew that if there was any romance in the book at all, I wanted it to be noir in the extreme!
Can you tell us a bit about any upcoming project(s)?
It’s still a little bit of a secret, but I’m working on a contemporary YA about a historically obsessed main character. It’s set in LA, of course.
As a librarian in the young adult department at Los Angeles Public Library, how do you determine which books to order? Do you have anything on your wishlist right now, either personally or that you think is lacking in childrens’ or YA lit? What do you think teens are hungry for at the moment?
When deciding what to order, I consider popularity and quality and what readers in my city want. So I look at professional reviews, I look at Goodreads, I ask the teens in my library what they want me to order, and I also keep an eye out for areas where there are gaps in my collection or demand that’s not being met.
There is always a need for diverse books, but especially in a diverse city like Los Angeles, and my teens need to see more characters who look like them. The We Need Diverse Books campaign made these awesome printable flyers last summer recommending diverse books. Ever since I hung them up at my library, those books are NEVER on the shelf. At my library, I’d especially love to see more books with amazing, complicated Latino/a characters like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, and Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, by Isabel Quintero, and books about different LGBTQ experiences like Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight and Everything Leads To You, by Nina LaCour.