Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: L. A. Confidential by James Ellroy (5/5)

The third book in the L.A. Quartet, L.A. Confidential has been hailed by critics as one of seminal works of neo-noir.  Published in 1990, it was Ellroy’s coming out party as a force to be reckoned with in the genre and the dawn of a new generation in crime fiction.  Why?  Because it’s that freaking good.  It’s also because, at the time it was published, no one had ever written a book quite like it.  The style is dense and clipped with abbreviated sentences trimmed down to only the essential elements, and the language is short and sweet, often culled from police, criminal, and 1950s pop vernacular.  What results is a reading experience that feels a lot like picking through shattered glass.  It’s a slow and painstaking process, trying to absorb every bit of meaning while not cutting yourself on the jagged edges.   

His “kick you in the nards” style came into being when writing the novel White Jazz.  The first manuscript he turned into his editor was a whopping 900 pages, and they asked him to trim it down to 350.  He refused to remove scenes or subplots and instead trimmed it by distilling the words into their barest form (and simultaneously gave the finger to all those grammar Nazis that run high-school English classes).  What resulted became Ellroy’s signature style.  Here’s an example from the text:

“Dusk, Chermoya AvenueHollywood, a block off Franklin.  5261:  a Tudor four-flat, two pads upstairs, two down.  The lights—probably too late to glom “Chester” the day man.  Jack rang the B buzzer—no response.  An ear to the door, a listen—no sounds, period.  In with the key.”

See what I mean about “dense”?  A 400 page book written by Ellroy contains as much story as a 1000 page book from any other writer.  There’s so much narrative in there, it’s hard to keep it all straight. L.A. Confidential was my fifth Ellroy book (prior to that it was Brown’s Requiem, The Black Dahlia, Destination: Morgue!, and Blood’s a Rover, if anyone out there is keeping score), and I have to say, I’m glad I didn’t try to tackle it right out the gate.  It’s not an easy read, and anyone thinking of reading it would benefit from a little warming up before inviting Ellroy to pound their brains raw.

There are three narrative streams in the book, each one following a different character in the Los Angeles police department.  First is Ed Exley, a young war hero, college boy, and coward hell bent on moving up the ranks of the LAPD and living up to his daddy’s as a police officer.  Then there’s Wendel “Bud” White, a dumb bruiser with a penchant for “excessive force,” especially when exercised against wife beaters and child abusers.  And finally there’s “Trashcan” Jack Vincennes.  He works as an official advisor on the fictional TV series Badge of Honor (a.k.a. Dragnet, if anyone out there remembers that bit of La-La-Wood gold) and rousts celebrity drug users for the scandal rag, Hush-Hush.  In other words, he’s totally bent.  All are deeply flawed characters, but in different ways.  The novel takes place over several years, with excerpts from local newspapers and police reports filling in the blanks between the passage of years.

All three characters are in some way involved with several key events in the story.  It starts off with “Bloody Christmas,” a vicious beating perpetrated by dozens of officers upon four young Hispanics.  The three officers’ actions during and subsequent to this event form the framework for their relationships (or lack thereof) with one another, and set in motion many of the other events in novel.  A couple years later, six people are shot-gunned into oblivion in an all-night diner called the Nite Owl.  All the men three all have a hand in the arrest and slaying of three negro youths accused of the crime, the cover-up of which becomes vital to unraveling the central mystery.  But in addition to that, there are a ton of other subplots that weave their way into the narrative—a decades old serial murder, gruesome porn magazines,  hookers cut to look like movie stars, stolen heroin, murdered prostitutes, the Badge of Honor TV show, a millionaire chemist, the Hush-Hush gossip rag, police corruption, organized crime, and gangland murder.  I could go on, but there isn’t any point, really.  Explaining the plot in detail won’t help you understand it any better.  If anything, it’ll just make you even more confused.  Suffice to say that there’s a lot of shit.  But that was probably the thing that amazed me the most about this novel—that Ellroy could spin a story with so many subplots and characters and thematic elements and still be able to tie them all together at the end.  That alone takes a special kind of brilliance.

James Ellroy
Another spot of brilliance (hell, what am I talking about?  The whole damn thing is brilliant) is Ellroy’s re-imagined version of L.A.  Underneath the veneer of glitz and wealth and suburban bliss lies a malignant and festering sore.  What makes it different than the real L.A., you ask?  It’s because Ellroy takes all that corruption and depravity and kicks it up to eleven.  A musician doesn’t just get high on dope.  He gets high on dope and screws dogs and rapes underage hookers.  A man isn’t just a wife-beater.  He beats his wife to death while his young son watches and then leaves the kid to die chained up in the kitchen.  A serial killer doesn’t just target young kids.  He targets young kids, chops up their bodies, and sews them together to make a Frankenstein Pinocchio.  The violence, perversion, and decay of Ellroy’s L.A. is a caricature of the real thing, amped up on steroids and blasted in your face out of a fire hose.  He wants you to be shocked.  He wants you to be disgusted.  We’ve been desensitized by sensational media and gruesome crimes, and exaggerating the moral decrepitude is Ellroy’s way of grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you awake.  Because of that, L.A. Confidential isn’t going to appeal to everyone.

But it’s not all death and depravity.  There’s a note of redemption, too, the idea that bad men can overcome their flaws and administer absolute justice—no matter how ugly the outcome might be.  The coward can be brave, the bent can be straight, the thuggish can be heroic—but only through commonality and dependence upon their fellow man.  Throughout the book, each of the characters attempts to solve the same problem by attacking it by themselves from different angles.  Proving true the old adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” they’re only able to surpass their own flaws and administer justice by working together and forgetting past wrongs.  There’s a larger message in there about the human condition, but instead of waxing sappy (or sappier than I have already), I’m going to let you figure it out on your own.   

Like I said before, L.A. Confidential isn’t an easy read.  The writing style takes some getting used to, and the subject matter is uncomfortable at times.  But at the same time, I can’t encourage you enough to pick it up and give it a try.  Even if you don’t usually like crime or mystery fiction, I have a feeling you’ll enjoy it.  So long as you’re not easily offended, of course.  Or a child--definitely not a book to let your kids get ahold of.  Anyway, the point is that it’s not just a good mystery.  It’s good literature

And if you’ve seen the movie and you’re worried the book will be a bore because you know everything that’s going to happen, then don’t.  The second half of the book is totally different from movie.  I mean, it’d have to be.  If they put everything in the movie the way it was in the book, that sucker would be twelve hours long.


  1. I'm so mad that this is only available on audible.com as an ABRIDGED version. ABRIDGED!!! Grrrr.

  2. I remember watching the movie some years ago and not understanding what was supposed to be so great about it. Maybe I was expecting something much, much better because of what everybody was saying about it.

    Is the book a lot better?

  3. I actually liked the movie pretty well. The book, though, I liked much better. There's a lot more to it, more subplots, etc. The only failing, as I saw it, was that the female characters in the story were kind of flat... but there were so few female characters, it didn't really matter. And really, how do you flesh out a minor character very much when you have as sparse a style as Ellroy's?

  4. The movie was frigging awesome! And the book's bound to be better...write? (Yeah. Pun, intended.) I'm an author, so I must believe that ...

    I saw your post on BB and got pulled in. Thanks to your outstanding review my TBR list just got bigger. :) I'm a new follower. I =1'd this. Awesome!


    1. Thanks, Scarlett! Yeah, the movie was really good. It's actually the reason why I decided I needed to read the book--and I wasn't disappointed, either. Obviously.

      Thanks for the follow, and right back atcha!

  5. I also liked the movie, haven't read the book but I guess now I'm going to have to with such glowing reviews.


    1. Here's hoping I didn't steer you down the wrong path! There seem to be a lot of other reviewers that didn't like it almost as much as I liked it.

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