California “True Crime” is one worn out genre. From the quick dry pulp of the Peterson Case to a hardcore social of analysis of the Manson Family, there seems to be no end to our insatiable desire for proof of California’s deep neurosis. Rare is the book that can transcend the clutter and actually say something new about well-trodden footpath of California Drama. Alan Emmins’ Mop Men: California's Crime Scene Cleaners is that rare book.
Mop Men is a look inside a Bay Area crime scene clean-up crew over a 30-day period in 2003. Emmins, a Brit who now lives in Denmark, catalogs the daily trials of himself and the crew as they scrub the guts and gore left over from suicides, murders, meth-labs and all the devilish ephemera of modern urban/suburban life. During the course of the book, we bare witness as Emmins slowly comes to grips with the job and the culture that surrounds him.
What separates Mop Men, an important theme largely ignored by U.K. reviewers, is the contrast between the action (cleaning up gruesome death) and the portrayal of the contradictions inherent in living in the Golden State. Early on, we follow Alan as he drives from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Along the way makes a poignant stop in Santa Cruz, CA. Expecting the typical beach town, our mythical place, he instead finds a boarded-up melancholy boardwalk and lower-class ghetto. That night, after checking into a flea bag beach motel, he heads out for a beer but ends up getting smashed with a bunch of raucous Mexicans. After agreeing to let his new cholo friends drive him back to the motel he is gripped with the fear that these crazy Mexicans are going kill him. The fear of course is unfounded; they are after all just a bunch of jovial drinking buddies, but the paranoia is real and what seems like an innocuous event that could have been left out takes on greater meaning as things move forward.
False drama with the Mexicans sets the scene for real drama to come as Emmins heads north to the supposed tranquil confines of white-bread Walnut Creek, CA. It is here, in one of America’s most exclusive suburbs, that death reveals himself. We meet, the boss, cleaner of Death, the hard charging Alan Smither, who’s personality, and ridiculous driving style, will be familiar to California readers. At last the action (cleaning up after the dead) begins.
Slowly, we begin to understand that this book is not really True Crime after all and that the gruesome scenes of clean-up serve a larger purpose. Emmins has arrived in California at the very moment Arnold Swartzenhegger began teasing the public that he plans to run in the re-call election. The author wisely juxtaposes grizzly tales of crime scene clean-up with bits of news from the re-call, the very things Emmins is consuming. These vignettes, not unlike the "Newsreels" in John Dos Passos’ U.S.A Trilogy, serve to fix the story and accelerate the drama. The tension between real life and death and the outlandish fantasy world of California commerce and politics is disturbing to say the least. Eventually, both events begin to merge and overtake the author (and frankly the reader). Whacked out contrasts drive the plot as lights switch on, we leave the “phony” Walnut Creek and enter the “real” San Francisco next store, tweaked-out states of being flow, Mary Carey jokes from the Daily Show on TV one minute, then - boom - Emmins is chipping bone fragments from the wall of Middle Class strip home, the next.
With Mop Men, Emmins has captured an essential truth about being Californian few writers have managed to carry off, Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear came to mind as we read the book. We know these Mop Men exists everywhere but somehow finding and exploring them in the hyper-glossy and hyper-gross world of Modern California makes the whole experience more illuminating. To paraphrase the author:
Think Million Dollar homes on faults.
Think death from above.
Free California strongly recommends Mop Men.