The year 1953 was a big one for America. President Truman announced the H-bomb, the Korean War ended and John and Jackie got hitched. But that same year, one city, Los Angeles, had more than its fair share of smaller, seamier events. Ruth Fredericks was murdered by her husband, Richard, who earned himself the nickname "The Croquet Mallet Slayer". Willie B Miller slit his wife Clara Mae's throat with a cleaver with their three kids nearby. Traffic cop Don M Alden killed his wife, her suspected lover and then himself in a car park.
The murders, manslaughters, home invasions and suicides that happened that year – and the crime scene photographs documenting them – are housed in the archive of the Los Angeles Police Museum, which this month is publishing a selection in a new book, LAPD '53. We've seen pictures like this before, but this time the scene is set by that quintessential Los Angeles crime chronicler James Ellroy.
Back in 1953, Ellroy was turning five, living in the City of Angels; his parents were still married and his mother had yet to be murdered – that would happen five years later, and cement Ellroy's life-long fascination with crime and crime-solving, evinced in his many books including The Black Dahlia (1987) and LA Confidential (1990).
Raymond Gross, a 49-year-old LA drama coach, slumped dead by his phone in 1953
It's an era on which – for reasons that are not at all hard to fathom – Ellroy is obviously hooked. The LAPD was led by the formidably ferocious William H Parker – "Whiskey Bill Parker" to Ellroy – and cops were as free with their triggers as the punks were with their "reefer smoke" and "jungle juice". His essay and extended captions detailing the crimes roll and revel in the vernacular of the day.
And what of those crimes? That guy in the dressing gown slumped over a coffee table with his glasses knocked off and his hand still clutching the phone? That's Raymond Gross, a 49-year-old drama coach, who died of poisoning from the barbiturates he had been prescribed for pain relief after being seriously duffed up by a sailor he'd picked up a few months before. "An inventory of visible items distills his loneliness," writes Ellroy.
Or what about the extraordinarily elaborate suicide of the anonymous man in the ladies' swimsuit? Or the crumpled body of Jesus Fernandez Munoz, a bum who somehow fell to his death from the Aliso Street Bridge into the dry bed of the LA River? The writer riffs on these sad images, strangely distanced and aestheticised over time, snapped in a city that looms almost as large in our imaginations as it did in five-year-old Ellroy's. You can't look, but you can't look away.
LAPD '53 by James Ellroy and the Los Angeles Police Museum is out on 19 May