The city is absent & geography is destiny

Of the various maps of Los Angeles that I’ve referred to in my research, perhaps my favourite is this one, taken from the LA County Sheriff’s Department 1975-6 report.


Source: Fiscal Year 1975-6 Statistical Summary, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, via NCJRS

It shows LASD station boundaries throughout Los Angeles County; it is, in other words, a map marking out territory under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department – either unincorporated county land, or incorporated cities that have contracted the LASD to provide law enforcement.

Cities with their own police departments – the City of Los Angeles most notably, but also Beverly Hills, for example – are outside of LASD jurisdiction. As a result, what would normally be most prominent features on a map of this area, the districts and landmarks of Los Angeles, are absent. I like the slightly uncanny way it defamiliarises such an otherwise recognisable view.

Jurisdictional conflict is central to James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere. Danny Upshaw, one of its three POV protagonists, is an LASD Deputy, and he spends much of the novel transgressing territorial boundaries – pursuing his investigation outside of LASD jurisdiction, and ultimately paying the price for uncovering LAPD corruption. The other thing I like about this map is how well it illustrates Upshaw’s dilemma in the novel. He is assigned to the LASD West Hollywood substation – meaning that his immediate jurisdiction is the less that two square miles of territory marooned at the centre of the map. Visualising this topography makes clear just how restricted Upshaw’s investigative mobility is, and how his jurisdictional transgressions are near-unavoidable.

For all that Upshaw exhibits plenty of (rather precocious and reckless) autonomy, pursuing leads despite sanction from his superiors and threats from his targets, for me this map can’t help but call to mind a maxim that Ellroy has made his own:

‘Geography is destiny.’

Note: Writing this, I was initially convinced ‘Geography is destiny’ was the epigraph to one of Ellroy’s novels. It’s not, although he does use the phrase in one of the short stories collected in Destination: Morgue! (2004). It crops up repeatedly in his interviews, talks and Q&As (e.g. here, here, here). He’s apparently used it frequently enough to claim it as his own, because where it does appear as an epigraph is Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire – attributed to Ellroy.


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