L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
We’ve all heard of the Good-Cop/Bad-Cop routine, but when you read a James Ellroy novel it’s more like Bad-Cop/Worse-Cop/Crimes-Against-Humanity-Cop.
This third installment in the L.A. Quartet introduces us to another trio of police officers who wouldn't last ten minutes on the job if there were smart phones in the 1950s which could have recorded their many misdeeds. Ed Exley is a brilliant detective, but his physical cowardice is exceeded only by his ruthless ambition. Bud White is a thug who never met a suspect he couldn’t beat into talking, and he’s got a special hatred reserved for men who hurt women. Jack Vincennes has gone Hollywood with a side gig as the technical advisor for a TV cop show, and his reputation as a relentless narco officer is mainly due to him taking payoffs from a scandal rag to arrest movie stars to create juicy stories.
The three cops end up involved in a police brutality scandal dubbed Bloody Christmas which leads to drastic changes of fortune for each of them. Then a shocking mass murder in a coffee shop in an apparent robbery gone wrong draws all of them orbit of the investigation. Driven by their obsessions and haunted by secrets all of them will follow separate trails through a tangled web of pornography, drugs, prostitution, rape, and murder.
Ellroy had used similar elements of historical fiction that combines the seedy history of L.A. with his own epic crime stories in previous books, but I think this is where he perfected the idea and really soared with it. It’s the first time he fully deployed a unique style that is essentially a stream of consciousness that shifts among the three leads that uses clipped sentences to form a patter that makes everything feel more as if it’s being experienced instead of a narrative you’re reading.
The main appeal for me is the three main characters. These are not nice guys. They are utterly amoral and unrepentant racists who cause an enormous amount of damage in pursuit of their own agendas. What saves them, (And this is what usually redeems Ellroy’s characters.) is their ultimate realizations that they’re pawns being used by a system that is far more criminal and corrupt than anything they’ve done, and that they’re willing to destroy themselves and everything around them in bids for redemption.
This is a brutal, vicious crime novel filled with shocking acts of violence and offensive language. It’s also an extremely complex and dense book with multiple confusing sub-plots spinning off the main Nite Owl story. I’ve read it multiple times, and I’d still be hard pressed to explain everything that happens and why. Despite all of that it remains among my favorite novels because it is such a bold attempt to do something different that is mostly successful.
I also credit the movie as being one of the best adaptations of a book I’ve seen. There’s only about 40% of the plot from the page on the screen, but they did a masterful job of combining and condensing elements while preserving the essential feel of the book and smartly keeping the focus on its three flawed main characters.
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