The third novel in James Ellroy
's outstanding L.A. Quartet
series, L.A. Confidential
takes the secret history of Ellroy's only-slightly-parallel-universe L.A.P.D.
from where The Big Nowhere
left off, in the February of 1950 - rogue cop Buzz Meeks' flight from his suicidal crash-in heist of a 25lb heroin deal between gangsters Jack Dragna
and Mickey Cohen
- through eight years of dense intrigue and scarily plausible covert police mayhem.
Ellroy is not known for stinting on complexity, raw violence, or sordid psychological depth, and this novel makes strenuous demands on the reader in all three departments. The epic plot is a baroquely detailed tapestry woven around a mess of unresolved crimes: the distribution of a slew of artful and depraved pornography - incest, faux-dismemberment, and bestiality; a state-wide series of prostitute killings; and, the centrepiece of the book, the strangely disproportionate slaughter of five, for till scrapings and pocket change, at a late-night coffee shop: the "Nite Owl massacre". Along the way, as the overlapping investigations ramify, a seemingly endless stream of criminality - call girl rings, dope dealing, extortion, witness elimination, political corruption, territorial gangland slayings, torture and rape - is threaded into the picture. Though it's no simple murder mystery, the reader is kept in suspense and the "grand design" is only revealed in the final few chapters (out of seventy-eight) of the book.
The narrative structure is similarly intricate. The unfolding story is
seen through the eyes of three lead characters, police officers, each compromised and flawed, each taking an equal share of the limelight by rotation in chapters: Edmund Jennings Exley - privileged, prissy, hyper-intelligent, calculating, a physical coward and faked-up war hero, his ruthless ambition driven by rivalry with his dead brother and ex-cop millionaire father; "Trashcan" Jack Vincennes, publicity-seeking ex-pillhead and alcoholic, milking his narco squad post for on-the-side deals with sleazy scandal-sheet Hush-Hush and fantasy revenge on the ex-wife who ran off with a dope dealing jazz trombonist, blackmailable because of his covered-up drugged-up shooting of two innocent tourists on a badly misfired stakeout; and thuggish strong-arm specialist Wendell "Bud" White, struggling to make detective against his poor education and limited intelligence, compelled to chase wife-beaters with "excessive force" by his memories of his mother, clubbed to death with a tire iron at the hands of his father.
These three protagonists chase their various rainbows through the course of investigations that reveal by stages the multilayered criminal conspiracy which runs through the novel. Exley: familial and departmental acceptance, and rising through the ranks; Vincennes: escape from the clutches of his past and moral redemption through a normal marriage; White: to prove that he's more than just the department gorrilla, "being a detective - not a headbasher - on his own". As the investigations coalesce, the three policemen, each of whom have just a part of the picture, and are barely talking to each other for much of the book, are drawn together in order to "make the case".
The way in which these personal motivations, the investigations and police procedures, are interwoven with departmental politics and Ellroy's hyperbolic vision of the criminal milieu (famously informed by his own career as a petty thief, pill popper and deviant) is nothing short of virtuosic.
Fifty or more minor characters are vividly and energetically depicted: gangster cops, corrupt DA's, jazz musician lowlife, prostitutes cheap and expensive, dumb and smart. Hitmen, snitches, rapists, and more.. Outstanding in particular are the portrayals of sleazoid journalist Sid Hudgens, the voice of Hush-Hush Magazine with its sin-sational, sin-tillating, allusive, alliterative prose (dig it, hepcats!), stylish, personable, jewish organised crime boss Mickey "the Mickster" Cohen, perverse boundary-transgressing millionaire "investor" Pierce Patchett, and - a real triumph - clever, brutal, and corrupt, Irish cop Dudley Smith, pursuing his multiple agendas through off-the-books operations, politicking with the best of them, hiding his thuggish malevolence behind velvety grandiloquent verbals, full of rogueish charm.
The writing is spare and effective, challenging the reader to keep up with the relentless twists and turns, the criminal / police argot, the sheer ugliness of the world in which the author's characters live. Stylistically, the novel is the first full flowering of the "telegraphic" literary technique which Ellroy hinted at in The Black Dahlia, began to explore in The Big Nowhere, and which reached its culmination in White Jazz, sequel to L.A. Confidential and final book of the Quartet. Just to pick a couple of early paragraphs at random (doomed rogue cop Buzz Meeks is running for his life from gangland reprisals, and decides to hole up at a cheap motel):
Meeks grabbed the 10-gauge, started kicking in doors. One, two, three, four - cobwebs, rats, bathrooms with plugged up toilets, rotted food, magazines in Spanish - the runners probably used the place to house their spics en route to the slave farms up in Kent County. Five, six, seven, bingo on that - Mex families huddled on mattresses, scared of a white man with a gun, 'There, there' to keep them pacified. The last string of rooms stood empty; Meeks got his satchel, plopped it down just inside unit 12: front/courtyard view, a mattress on box springs spilling kapok, not bad for a last American flop.
A cheesecake calendar tacked to the wall: Meeks turned to April and looked for his birthday. A Thursday - the model had bad teeth, looked good anyway, made him think of Audrey: ex-stripper, ex-Mickey inamorata; the reason he killed a cop, took down the Cohen/Dragna 'H' deal. He flipped through to December, cut odds on whether he'd survive the year and got scared: gut-flutters, a vein on his forehead going tap, tap, tap, making him sweat.
In short, the book is a technical masterpiece, hooks you on the plot and on the characters, and will keep you reading until the bittersweet resolution where the final veils are torn away, and most of the bad guys are dead or at bay. There are many reasons you might not want to read it: distaste for graphic violence and outrageous language; a wish to preserve an unblemished image of the forces of law and order; an unwillingness to keep five hundred unpadded pages of plot in mind as you struggle to follow the intrigue and counter-intrigue. But mere dislike of the genre shouldn't deter you - Ellroy, here as in most of his work, is far far away from the formulaic, romanticised pablum that the words "crime fiction" bring to mind, and has written a serious and moving novel that transcends the limitations of its type.
L.A. Confidential: James Ellroy, Mysterious Press (UK), 1990.