'LA '56' Author Joel Engel on Noir Thriller That Reads Like True-Crime Version of James Ellroy Novel (Q&A)

The author discusses the forgotten serial rapist case investigated by the LAPD detective who handled the Black Dahlia and Manson Family murders and how the book is changing the lives of the children of those involved in the story.

L.A. ’56: A Devil in the City of Angels, the new true-crime thriller by Joel Engel, chronicles the long-forgotten investigation into a serial rapist who terrorized the city during the summer of 1956.

The hero of the story is Danny Galindo, one of the first Latino detectives hired by the Los Angeles Police Department. He started his career investigating the Black Dahlia murder in 1947 and was the first detective on the scene of the Manson Family's LaBianca murders in 1969. But it was the 1956 rapes that remained with him his whole life.

L.A. ’56 reads like a true-life version of a James Ellroy novel. It features a hero in Galindo, a falsely accused victim in Todd Roark, a predator in the real rapist Willie Roscoe Fields and a cast of characters that runs from Dragnet creator Jack Webb to future L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley. The story is full of twists and turns, ending in a marriage for the hero and imperfect justice for Roark and Fields.

Engel talked with The Hollywood Reporter about how he discovered the case, why writing the book was so difficult, how Galindo is a hero, what the book taught him about Los Angeles, his noir-style storytelling and the shocking impact the book has had on the children of Roark and Fields.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you learn about this story?

Joel Engel: I was looking for a juicy true-crime story. The detective, Danny Galindo, told it to me at a lunch; there were four of us there. My uncle, a lawyer, had introduced me to Joe Bonino, who worked in the LAPD’s records division. He said I should meet this retired detective who might have some good stories. He arranged this lunch. As Galindo told the story, I had my mouth open the whole time because it was so great. The last line he said, literally the last line, was, "And then I married the girl.” That was really the drawstring that pulled the whole story together. I started applauding, and so did the other two guys. It was incredible.

THR: It took you a long time to write the book after that, right?

Engel: He told me the story in 1990. I started consolidating all the notes and turning them into the story right away, but then I got another book and then another. I kept writing it and rewriting it; I could never get it right. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. In 2008, my uncle and I volunteered to try to get this young African-American kid, who was wrongly convicted, out of prison -- I wrote about it in the afterword of the book. I visited him 13 times in prison, but probably by the fourth time I realized what was missing from the L.A. '56 book: To be falsely accused of rape is something you can never erase the stench of. If you're exonerated for murder, you basically can walk free. If you say you didn't murder someone and you are exonerated from it, by and large people will believe that, certainly at a magnitude greater than they do if you are accused of rape. Once I had that, I realized what was missing was a great deal more of Todd Roark's story, the falsely accused cop. The heart of it was missing for me. It is Danny Galindo's story, but the wages were Todd Roark's.

THR: Talk about Galindo.

Engel: Galindo was a great guy who wanted to do right and couldn't stand when injustice was done anywhere. He fell in love with a woman who was like that. His wife Margie was decades ahead of the curve on civil rights. They're bookends in terms of ethics and all that. One of the reasons that he knew that Roark wasn't the guy was because of Margie, who barely escaped being raped by Fields. Margie said, "That's not him.” He believed her because he was already falling in love with her. Todd Roark did not go to the gas chamber because of that. 

THR: The story reads almost like a true-life version of an Ellroy novel. It's very norish.

Engel: It is funny you say that. I generally think in color when I'm thinking stuff, but in this case this all occurred to me in black and white. The entire time I was writing this, the words looked like they were black and white on the screen in my head.

THR: What did you learn about Los Angeles by writing this book?

Engel:  All this stuff about L.A. that I thought I had known because I grew up here, but I didn't know there were really two Los Angeleses. It was an eye-opener, and not in a good way. There were at least four cross burnings that summer. There was a firebombing in Placentia. These things never made news in The Herald-Express or The Examiner or The Los Angeles Times or The Mirror. These things were only reported in the two black weeklies, so it's one of the reasons the rapes were able to go on so long -- because there were no precautions taken by anybody at the lovers lanes around Los Angeles. It wasn't good for the city's reputation. The thing went on from May until late August. No one actually knows how many rapes Fields committed because Galindo felt that probably more than half went unreported.

It was shocking to me that life on the other side of Crenshaw was so much different than the life I was living. It's not like I lived in an entirely white area. I went to an integrated junior high school, so it was a surprise to me. Until I started looking into this, I was really surprised by how different it was and how this city was patrolled differently. We're talking about 1956; the L.A. school board banned "negro teachers." There were qualified black teachers who had left Mississippi where their life was just dreadful, and they came here and had to work as laborers because they couldn't get hired as teachers. There was black L.A., and there was white L.A.

THR: Have you heard from the children of Fields and Roark?

Engel: Book Soup, where I have signing on Wednesday night [April 11], got a call from a woman who identified herself as the daughter of the rapist, and she said she wanted to be put in contact with Joel Engel before the signing because she had some things to tell him ahead of time. Long story short, I finally did call her when I convinced myself that my life wasn't in danger. She's 69 years old. She had never met the man, and she didn't know anything about him because her mother would never tell her. A month ago, she got his birth certificate, so she got his name. She saw the book sample that is on Amazon. The very first three words of the book are Willie Roscoe Fields, her father's name. She read it and said, "Oh my God, these biographical details are exactly right." She's bringing his birth certificate to Book Soup, and I am bringing her a photocopied photo that I got from the probation report. She never laid eyes on her father.

Then you have Todd Roark's daughter, who was 2 years old on the day he got out of jail and the charges were dropped, but she knew nothing about him. She lived her entire life, until her mid-50s, when I informed her otherwise, thinking that her father was in fact a rapist. That's pretty startling. I felt like I'd been kicked in the belly when she answered a question a particular way. I thought there's only one explanation for why she would answer that particular question that way. I said, "Do you think your father was a rapist?" She said, "Well, yeah, wasn't he?" I said, "Oh my God, no.”

Her stepsister is a minister. She has been praying all her life to have her father's reputation cleansed and for him to be exonerated in the eyes of everyone who had known him, because still some people believed what her half-sister believed. Her father at one point gave her the name of Danny Galindo and said: "You should look this man up. This is the man who cleared me." But she lost that piece of paper. And then all of a sudden I come calling many years later. For her, I was sent by heaven."

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