Kim Cooper first happened across the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven back in 2006, while researching “unusual crimes” to talk about during a commercial bus tour through Los Angeles’ Westside neighborhoods. The Great Eleven, as she abbreviates its moniker, was an especially wacky religious cult founded in the early 1920s by May Otis Blackburn and her reputedly seductive, 20-something daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio, a onetime paid dance partner in LA’s notorious Jazz Age ballrooms. Those two women claimed to have been chosen by the angel Gabriel to hear divine secrets about heaven and earth, life and death—and, not incidentally, the whereabouts of substantial hidden mineral wealth. They went on to establish a community of about 100 true believers at an isolated retreat called Harmony Hamlet, in the Santa Susana Mountains northwest of LA. Mother and offspring were supposedly kept busy transcribing their angelic communications, yet they also found time to sucker prosperous suitors into loaning them money, which they of course never paid back.
“Los Angeles in the 1920s was the biggest boomtown the world has ever seen, with a surging population of naïve pensioners and widows,” observes Cooper, who, with husband Richard Schave, operates that city’s Esotouric “bus adventures” company and penned The Kept Girl, a new crime novel that blends together the Great Eleven, soon-to-be-author Raymond Chandler and a historical LA cop who may have been the model for Chandler’s most celebrated gumshoe, Philip Marlowe. “The mass marketing of the climate lured them from the middle west, east and the north, and when they got here they were isolated, bored and easy pickings for hustlers financial and spiritual.”
Hustlers like May Blackburn.
She was “a master of psychology,” Cooper says of the Great Eleven matriarch, “who made her followers feel important, baffled them with BS and kept them busy performing repetitive, meaningless tasks. Some of her followers had low intelligence, others were simply credulous and lonesome. She isolated them at Harmony Hamlet, where they were surrounded by fellow believers and all their physical needs were met. It’s pretty typical small-time cult behavior, and she would have gotten away with it, too—if it wasn’t for that meddling Clifford Dabney!”
In The Kept Girl, our introduction to the real-life Clifford shows him as the immature, ne’er-do’-well nephew of Joseph Dabney, head of the Dabney Oil Syndicate, a petroleum-drilling enterprise for which Ray Chandler once labored as a bookkeeper, and later as vice-president. This story takes place in late summer, 1929, not long before the stock market crash that propelled the United States into its worst-ever economic depression. The elder Dabney has learned that his nephew imprudently gave $40,000 to Blackburn and her daughter, and he wants Chandler—who Cooper tells me had “a reputation as a legal ‘fixer’ within the company”—to retrieve it.
The Chicago-born, London-educated Chandler has appeared in several works of crime fiction over the decades, but rarely so pitifully as he does here. Cooper portrays him as a sociable but indolent 41-year-old executive, prone to too much drinking and talk of suicide, and more interested in dallying with young women than making his marriage—to a divorcée who’d lied about her age (she was 18 years his senior)—succeed. Cooper’s casting of Cissy Chandler as an embittered spouse is particularly affecting. One scene, in which she struggles to flee Chandler after he has overimbibed at a party, tells you everything you need to know about their relationship in the late ’20s:
He wasn’t even angry, but she was. Looking straight ahead, spine erect, lips tight around her teeth, she purred that if he didn’t like the way things were, it would be quite all right with her if he went away to stay. “You keep the car, I’ll keep the furniture, and we can forget we ever played this whole charade, huh? But I think you’ll find it harder to forget me, dear husband. You’re just like your father. A lush.”
Philip Marlowe was supposed to be an adept sleuth; Chandler was anything but. Acknowledging that, in The Kept Girl he recruits two trusted friends to his aid. The first is Muriel Fischer, his surprisingly resourceful secretary/mistress. (Chandler is said to have carried on a torrid love affair with at least one never-named Dabney Oil administrative assistant, though Muriel was inspired equally by Dorothy Fisher, Chandler’s “right-hand girl” from his time at Paramount Studios in the ’40s.) The second is Thomas H. James, a Kentucky-reared temperance man, cop and law-enforcement reformer who, for a time, was demoted to traffic duty at the busy intersection of Seventh Avenue and Broadway in downtown LA—two blocks from Chandler’s office. While the no-nonsense James plumbs the background of the Great Eleven and its scheming gurus, Chandler questions Clifford Dabney and his wife, and plots ways to infiltrate the Blackburn cult. Meanwhile, Muriel wins a job among the sect’s “lady faithful,” picking and sorting walnuts, hoping to learn the whereabouts of Dabney’s $40,000.
The more spadework this trio does, of course, the more secrets are unearthed.
For instance, we learn that Clifford Dabney was giving his fortune to the Great Eleven’s godly grifters partly in hopes of employing their angel-derived knowledge of life and death in distinctly antisocial ways. At the same time, he has been keeping his spouse locked away in their home, without clothes or money, to prevent her from further souring their standing with the cult. (Dabney wants back into the Great Eleven’s good graces, but being suddenly short of funds to offer May Blackburn and daughter Ruth—shown in the photo on the right—his stock with them has tumbled.) There are also unsettling rumors about the cult engaging in animal sacrifices and nude dancing, and reports of odd disappearances from among its disciples. Even before Chandler, Muriel and Tom James stumble onto the saga of a dead 16-year-old “priestess” who was interred with seven puppies, awaiting an unlikely resurrection, it’s clear there’s more that’s horrific than holy about the Great Eleven.
In reality, it was a 1929 civil complaint incited by Clifford Dabney going to the authorities, rather than any investigation by Ray Chandler, that provoked the LAPD’s bunco squad to look closely at the cultists’ activities. Cooper has taken the facts of that religious scandal and fictionalized them without detracting from their copious bizarreness, giving us another in the line of notable cult-oriented mysteries. After years of regaling her LA tour participants with the basics of this tale, she finally decided she had to write a book about it. “We get a lot of film, television and mystery writers on our bus,” she explains, “and I began to fret that one of them might take this great story, one that always went over gangbusters on the bus, and run with it.”
The Kept Girl—published independently, in association with Esotouric—cements Cooper’s claim to the Great Eleven psychodrama, at least for now. While this debut novel isn’t without weaknesses (the character of Tom James never feels quite fully fleshed out, and seeing a bit more of the eccentric Blackburn cult in action might have made clearer why so many Californians were drawn to it), the author does a commendable job of casting Chandler as a lonely, unsettled personality one or two more flaws shy of hopelessness. Muriel Fischer, though she clearly adores her boss, slowly comes to accept in these pages that she’s never going to be the most important element of Chandler’s world (“He was so often preoccupied, with his wife, with his friends, or with the bottle”). If not the principal star of this work, Muriel certainly supplies its emotional axis. And around all of that, Cooper—a third-generation Angeleno, well-practiced at coaxing people to visualize an LA long vanished—recreates her hometown in its sunny, sordid 1920s glory. A place where captains of industry, entrepreneurs, artists and “harmless crackpots” lived together in “a city on fire with becoming.”
Cooper says she’s thinking about writing a sequel to The Kept Girl. I hope she does.