Saturday, April 27, 2013

LA Confidential

         So the rundown is as follows: I love this book. I think it's one of the best crime novels I've ever read, and that James Ellroy, along with Raymond Chandler, is one of the few people who actually gets noir. The characters and dialogue are definitely the high points of the work, as well as a plot that twists and turns in just the right way, so each new revelation drives home the point that everyone involved is in over their heads. It's a very dark, beautiful book about flawed characters trying to find a way to take out the worse people before they themselves are consumed. Ellroy has a good handle on the "shades of grey" areas, and while his heroes are not particularly sympathetic, they are compelling enough to care what happens to them and part of the fun of the book is how they grapple with their personal demons. Not that a book like LA Confidential should ever be considered "fun".

            The downside is, the book is very dark and more than a little brutal. There's a lot of racist slurs bandied about, and some homophobic insults. All of this is presented without flinching or restraint, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. The book is about a case involving a brutal sextuple homicide, pornographic books, and stolen drugs. It handles it in the most direct and unflinching way possible, with all the language and graphic content that entails. That they had to rework a few sections of the plot to keep the film at an R rating says more than enough. While the language and content works for the time period and the atmosphere Ellroy wanted to evoke, it's still gonna be too much for some people.

More, as always, below.

"Some men get the world, some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona. You're in the former, but my God I don't envy the blood on your conscience." - Lynn Bracken

"One in six. Where's the girl?" - Bud White

                 You may notice this week that the book I am reviewing is a crime novel and thus slightly outside my purview. There's a good reason for that. This is one of the best, if not the best (okay, outside the Philip Marlowe books) crime/noir novel I have ever read. Hands down.  So without any further preamble, let's get right to it:

                    I found LA Confidential almost completely by accident. One spring, partly for nostalgia's sake, and partly because I hadn't been back since my favorite librarian's retirement party, I went back to the library down the street from where I grew up. Not much had changed in the time since I'd left...somehow, the selection was still better than the main branch of the library, though it was a much smaller space, but it was the same weird, intimate, welcoming place it had always been. It was like stepping back to a simpler, happier time in my life. And as I wandered through the adult section (a very small part of the library, all things considered), I happened to look down at a book with a bright red title along the spine: LA Confidential. After a quick check to make sure it wasn't a novelization of the movie, I took it out and opened it up on the way home.

                 And it is brilliant. The opening pages introduce the reader to the three policemen central to the investigation, all but one of them actually coming off sympathetic despite being very, very corrupt and not very nice people. The one exception is Edmund J. Exley, a by-the-book desk sergeant and war hero who comes off as morally more in the right, but antisocial and overly ambitious. And from these opening pages, it gets progressively dark and more twisted, and these tarnished heroes become both less and more sympathetic as they journey further down the spiral. And it was worth every second spent turning the pages to see exactly where the ride would go, how much nastier things could get.

                  LA Confidential introduces its three protagonists in very short order. Bud White is a brutal man,  the kind who goes in punching and doesn't stop much to ask questions or hand out arrests. He also has a huge grudge against wife-beaters, usually punching them half-unconscious and then threatening them with monthly check-ups. Jack Vincennes is the classic Hollywood cop-- a man concerned with his image and "playing the game" with the higher-ups in the entertainment business. His routine tactic is to handle celebrity drug busts and make sure his friend who runs a local gossip rag gets a piece of the action, just to make an extra buck. And finally, there's Ed Exley, a hard-nosed by-the-book cop with ambition on his mind and an axe to grind with everyone corrupt in the city. Which turns out by the end of the first chapter of the first section of the book to be exactly everyone. The three men are first introduced to each other during an office Christmas party where Jack brings a case of booze, Bud drunkenly fights off a cop beater when the police decide to get handsy with a few penned-in suspects, and Exley gets locked in a supply closet, only to rat on them for the whole thing, The book shows the results of the "Bloody Christmas" scandal, and then jumps forward a year, with news clippings showing the aftermath.

 And then things get twisted.

                     Vincennes gets put on the Administrative Vice desk for a year, where he starts to track a series of pornographic picture books with some very sick, very artistically-inclined smut. Exley makes detective but gets paired up with White to investigate a sextuple homicide in a diner before the whole mess blows up in the department's face. White, meanwhile, moonlights as an enforcer and muscle for a private squad who answers only to the enigmatic Dudley Smith, a high-ranking member of the LAPD with some serious ties to organized crime in Los Angeles (Spoilers be damned, if you make it through the prologue of the book, you know he's not a nice guy). But the cases, as they usually are in noir stories, are somehow connected, and before the end of the Nite Owl case, lives will be destroyed and people will die. Most of them not even the right people. If they expect to serve justice, the three of them will have to confront some very ugly things about both themselves and the beautiful town where they work.

                    Right off the bat, I'm going to say the thing I love the most is the characterization that goes into the book.Every character you meet is distinct, and they each have their own motivations. None of them are purely good or bad, sympathetic or unsympathetic...they're people. Which is exactly what characters should be. There shouldn't be definite "good guy" or "bad guy" crap...just people who do good things and bad things. Judging a character for their overall tally of good things said and done versus bad is bunk, we all know it's bunk, and LA Confidential wastes no time throwing it out the window. Our three main characters have good intentions, but do a lot of bad things. Conversely, the villains are some of the nicest, most respectable people you could ever meet...once you get past the fact that they're responsible for about half the crime in Los Angeles. Ellroy never treats his characters as heroes or villains or ideals...he just reports on what happens when they collide. And it's nice to see someone doing that, when these days I find myself inundated by people going "Why aren't more good guys good?"*

                         Each of the characters also serves to highlight the bad points about their individual archetypes. Bud is clearly the kind of cop who plays by his own rules, normally something that could be seen as heroic, but in the novel he is a brute who is given orders and suffers some severe repercussions for playing outside the box. Exley is the kind of ramrod-straight hero cop who could be called "lawful good", but the skeletons in his closet and the ruthless way he pursues regulation and promotion in the face of anything else makes him seem sort of villainous until he finally starts to figure out what's what. He has the longest character arc in the book, and that he grows a little by the end speaks to the strength of his character. And finally, Jack Vincennes is the typical sort of knight in tarnished armor tough-talking noir protagonist, atoning for his sins by  shaking down Hollywood's best and most beautiful, but the cynical way he manipulates everyone for his own personal gain just to make rent and impress his girlfriend makes it tough to justify anything he does. It's a nice way of playing with the usual crime novel "types".

                        Next, the dialogue is fantastic. Ellroy manages to make his characters tough-talking without resorting to cliche, each character's speech pattern actually matching them pretty well. There are some genuinely witty lines, and some very well-hidden exposition in the tough talk, and the dialogue manages to match the tone, as well as keeping the story moving at a very quick pace. All of it feels natural, from Jack's slang-laden and clipped tones to Exley's very straightforward and condescending, overeducated lines. The one issue with the dialogue is that it is laden with homophobic, racist, and sexist slang. While this was probably par for the course in the time period, it's a little hard to get used to at first. 

                         And finally, the plotline is a wonderful series of twists and hairpin turns that starts much differently than the traditional plot. In LA Confidential, upon reading the book, you are immediately greeted with a man on the run from the primary villain, who promptly shoots him in the head. Said villain's entrance is also a pretty obvious code for "villain", given that he arrives through a doorway wreathed in flame to kill his erstwhile henchman before the plot even starts. The rest of the book is the protagonists trying to figure out what the reader already knows, and the villains' increasing attempts to thwart them as seen with more stumbling blocks and dead ends the investigation hits. This does nothing to ratchet down the tension, in fact if anything it's ratcheted up as each new piece to the puzzle is added, the reader knowing how close the protagonist is to playing with fire.

                          There are two very obvious downsides to the book. First is the aforementioned dialogue issues. If you don't handle crude language well, this is not going to be the book for you. If you have problems with sex, violence, and drug use this may not be the book for you either. Second, in the middle section, the book drags a little. Not a lot, and it is all plot-important, it's just that with five hundred pages of a Los Angeles crime epic to get through, there's bound to be a slow bit here and there.

                             But if you can look past the period-appropriate and length-appropriate faults, there is a brilliant, dark book here. It is well worth your time, it is well worth a read, and it is something I should have bought, but instead simply take out of the library every few years to read and re-read. James Ellroy is someone who definitely gets it, and deserves if not your respect, your attention.

- Burton and Swinburne in The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder
- Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
- The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

*Asking me this in real life is pretty much a way to get oneself trepanned, and we all know whatever comes after having a hole drilled into your skull isn't going to be pleasant. But macabre almost-humor aside, the argument against reductionism in fiction is another article in and of itself, one I'm gonna do eventually when I can't stand it any more.


  1. Hi Sam- I am sorry that (for myself, not for you!) that I have been away from your blog for so long.

    First of all, I love this quote:

    "a plot that twists and turns in just the right way, so each new revelation drives home the point that everyone involved is in over their heads. It's a very dark, beautiful book about flawed characters trying to find a way to take out the worse people before they themselves are consumed..."

    ... what a great way to summarize the noir vibe and it perfectly describes Charlie Huston's "Joe Pitt" Vampire series.

  2. 2nd- as always, another stunning review. I love your writing chops,sir. I hope that you keep at it and maybe consider promoting your blog a bit more (?)