Reader’s Recommendation: L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy
This novel is brutal. Rude. I was apathetic about advertising it on a couple of sites honestly due to how people can virulently react to media being looked at. To me, the offence (aside from being relevant to the time, and part of the theme of how sickening such behaviour is) loops back into absurdity. This language will never be written again, not in my lifetime. There are tens of thousands of people too puritanically sensitive to discern fact from fiction, or how this novel is more stridently against racism and sexism than most things written today.
Cutting it short; not for the faint hearted. It’s one of the university books they give you when plunging into concepts of crime and evil. If reading about evil is not for you; neither is this book. Like much of the true crime genre the gristly detail is part of the detective needing to piece together information as part of the narrative, feeding us as well as the character some awful details. As much as the mystery however, this novel is extensive in detailing and exploring how corruption specifically settles or disfigures policemen, be it political ambition, exposure to violence, or darker and more conspiratorial factors. It’s worth noting the massive influence this novel has upon the genre, games such as LA Noire are scratching the surface of how many LA, American crime, even war stories I have no doubt took details from James Ellroy’s meticulously detailed story.
That said? I’m going to proceed without any more distancing from this point, apologies to those who just wanted to head in.
I wouldn’t call this novel noir, and have found intelligent critics point out criteria defining noir are elements such as the setting itself being a character, and that usually -certainly in the case of Phillip Marlowe- the drama stems from a genuinely moral protagonist encountering and refusing to yield against an immoral world. Los Angeles is not a character, but the battleground. None of the characters are inherently moral, it’s more a long term case of watching them live and slowly climb up the ladder; Ed Exley especially being an earlier highlight. Not as a policeman but more as a slowly more obvious, and once we realise it conniving politician type. He’s the cruder, thinner, American police version of Julian Sorel or Francis Urquhart. A nihilistic, manipulative bastard, using his resentment of others disliking him to further a deliberately over polished reputation and academic ability. L.A. Confidential is not a noir novel with the aesthetic sensibilities that implies, but a 50s Crime Novel where the aesthetic is the meticulous attention to imitating the time period, each fact a clue, each piece of paperwork and record making the tone of a book very much in favour of dry facts, dry wit and skulking minds.
Exley and his political manoeuvring and psychological cunning works well as a foil to Bud White, and personally find in the first half of this very long story that he is the ‘main protagonist due to being in the present as a success. Bud is still reeling and enraged and finds his footing literally and in-plot nearer the end. Vincennes I find is more in the shade (though also well written) purposefully due to the nature of his story. He is the opposite of Exley and unlike Bud in reputation and power. His limelight was waning even before 1951, and we watch the horrid silent decline of a man losing his mind.
Where the addiction of power and being denied respect or affection gnaws Exley, and the obsession with retributive violence and impotent anger gag Bud, pornography, Hollywood predators, and the hideous fact he cannot get these people (for an extra meta-level of disgust, look at whom Hollywood had play this character) ruins Jack Vincennes 50s LA systematically and steadily dismantles and gnaws at all three protagonists. That injustice persists for so long, is so mocking and even if caught is little solace to victims is the intimidating spectre of defeatism and pointlessness that builds up such a nihilistic story.
Of all the things I enjoy about L.A. Confidential, I appreciate how dark it will go, how it presents the bedrock of emotions, the total absence of justice whatsoever. But also the presence of it, that the desire and pursuit of justice, of a moral good is present even in the darkest world. It does exist even if ugly characters perform it, even if they are the few against the many, even if it may be too late. If it will take their health, their vitality, the capacity to love, to feel warm again, their compassion, or lives.
And I love that confession Jack Vincennes makes in the emotional climax of his story. Not because Jack breaks or because of his arc showing a tragic fall or any nonsense like the nihilistic ending to someone’s life. He tells the truth. Not only is that remarkable in a novel about finding and generating lies, but I can’t think of such a genuine, well intended confession in all of my life. In the true meaning of the word: saying everything you’ve done which you think requires forgiveness, abandoning ego or pretence and exchanging vulnerability for the relief of parting with all your secret doubts and hidden pain. That is a moment of true atonement, and of true love. Unconditional love. Regardless of his ultimate fate, it doesn’t matter because that terrible weight and the rotting of his soul is over. He could come clean, something no other character could do (although the terrible pain of what should be a relief, to have someone understand you is a fascinating theme that continues through the interactions of the main protagonists), and the only one of dozens of named characters, over decades who is not being hollowed out and eternally hiding the fear and secret actions made in the past.
It’s even more remarkable to see the fact of such a stark confession due to how grim and unpleasant this novel is. I wonder and ask myself reading this whether anyone I know, how many people in life would be willing to say every bad deed they have done, not just from dishonesty or fear but even out of love. Like chasing a criminal the police department gave up on, like turning away from the violence that feels good and hurts criminals at the expense of your soul, being able to tell the unaware one you love the worst of what you have done requires the 20th century equivalent of a heroic labour.
Bud and Exley must live and use lies, they must do really what they have the whole time, a lot of brutality and deviousness to oppose those in their sights, just not for political gain, sexual gratification, or to soothe a psychological hunger to abuse abusers. Like any overdose of excess not ending in death, while the affront and the amount of disgust can be constantly refilled eventually something rises up against it.
As far as novel experiences go, I cannot think of a read with a slower burn, that feels like it goes on for so long a time adding to minute tension. Longer books, such as The Count of Monte Cristo are larger and grander in scope, but with many classics there is more of a perceptive shift in tone, a breakaway interlude as though entering a latter act of a play. L.A. Confidential is always written the same, the unease, ill temper, and constant desire to grind people under heel never fades and nor do the characters, they age much as we do where darting ahead makes a visible difference, but in reality each scene, each new character and developing relationship continues widening along with the picture expanding but not coming close to being understood until a harrowing climax Ellroy makes sure is long to highlight the agonising nature of a conspiracy being vicious and speeding its pursuers up at the threat of being caught.
The final reveal and penultimate chapter is shocking purely in how much detail, seemingly out of context paved the way like the decades of corruption and other novels in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet series have rotted the city and Department from within, and at the end of the journey the reader really feels like they came out of something too. You can’t look away finishing it without reflecting on the nature of crime, how brutality in any direction, any conviction even if it is to be good or consistent in any way must be fought for. Every day is full of minute details, not merely observations but such elaborate and interconnected things that even those mastering detective methods are really just taking a few steps in the pond.
L.A. Confidential is an enduringly good crime epic showing justice, integrity and conviction’s worth by showering the audience in bigotry, defilement and abuse. In squeezing every slur, every degradation of spirit, every bit of guilt and loss of control and the slow rotting of the soul, Ellroy makes the audience take a look at a real 1950’s world with the evils of society and the crimes we would rather not see beyond the typical caper forced in our faces. It’s not paradox, but painting virtue with sin. When the truth is the exception, one sees it clearly. When one reads of evil, they understand the price and the need of good.
Ellroy, J. L.A. Confidential. Windmill Books, London. 2001.