The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Can you dig this, hepcat?
It’s January 1, 1950 in Los Angeles. A witch hunt for commies in the movie industry is gearing up under the guise of patriotism, but its real agenda is to make the careers of the ruthless men running it and help the studios keep labor costs down. Corruption scandals have created a lot of bad blood between the city cops and the county sheriff’s department. Rival gangsters Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen are fighting for control of the town. Everybody is too busy with their own schemes to care about the brutal murder of a nobody jazz musician. Everybody, that is, except for LASD Deputy Danny Upshaw.
Danny is a brilliant young detective with a secret he can't even admit to himself. He recognizes the murder as the work of a true madman and is instantly obsessed with finding the killer, but his investigation is hampered by the jurisdictional feuds between his department and the city cops.
Meanwhile LAPD Lieutenant Mal Considine is recruited to work on gathering evidence against Communists for a grand jury, and the job is just the thing he needs to boost his promising career and help him with some family issues. The downside is that he has to work with Buzz Meeks that he’s got an old grudge against. Meeks is an ex-cop who is equally comfortable paying a bribe or cracking a skull with his trusty night stick. He works as a fixer for Howard Hughes, and his cozy relationships with the crooks and film industry folks make him the perfect bag man and troubleshooter for the Red hunting enterprise. Eventually the two investigations intersect, and all three men have to deal with the consequences of who they are and what they’ve done.
This isn’t my favorite James Ellroy book, but it is a pivotal one in my own reading history because it’s the first one of his I read after finding a paperback copy at a library sale back before the world moved so I credit it for turning me onto his work. It’s also a turning point for Ellroy because it’s the where he created the template he’d follow for most of his later books. We’ve got an unholy trinity of three men capable of committing monstrous crimes in service of dubious causes to further their own ambitions and obsessions. Eventually circumstances will make them seek to atone for their misdeeds, but their attempts at redemption can be as destructive and blood soaked as the things they already regret. That three character structure and basic story arcs are pretty much the backbone of Ellroy’s career since this one.
Ellroy has a tendency to go long and let his plots wander in a hundred directions before gathering up the threads at the end. That gives his books a sprawling and epic feel, but it can also be frustrating and confusing as a reader if you’re trying to keep track of who did what and why. While I love the way that Ellroy mixes fact and fiction so that you feel like you’re reading the secret history that never made the newspapers it seems like he’s also trying to mimic the messiness of real events. It gives it some authenticity, but it sometimes feel like it’s clashing with attempts to fashion in into a coherent crime novel.
For me it’s always the characters that keep me coming back to Ellroy, and that’s the case here. There’s a mix of courage and cowardice in all of them, and Buzz remains one of my favorites as the guy who knows all the angles but in typical Ellroy fashion can’t resist doing something incredibly stupid. Danny Upshaw is also intriguing because he’s probably the closest Ellroy has come to having one of his leads be pure and uncorrupted, but even Danny isn’t above beating up a witness for information or committing a crime if it advances his cause.
While this doesn’t hit the highs of his best work it’s still a bold creation by a writer that shows the first use of all the elements he’d pull together to hit his peak.
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