There’s hardboiled fiction, which portrays crime and violence unsentimentally, and in which the detective is usually cool, cocky, and flippant, but relatively honest. Then there’s noir fiction, in which the protagonist is usually not a detective at all, but a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator — something like James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Double Indemnity. So where does James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential fall? His three protagonists are not heroes. They abuse women, take bribes, close their eyes to corruption, beat confessions from suspects, shoot unarmed victims, take drugs, and struggle to be honest even according to their own lights. But they’re L.A.’s finest — sworn to uphold the law — and all three of them seek redemption through the filthiest ways known to man.
I’ll say right at the outset that I’ve seen the film adaptation of L.A. Confidential several times. It’s a powerful film, wonderfully cast and carefully constructed. Having finally read the book, I want to see the film again. I can see how the film was simplified, how large chunks of history and motivation and even plot simply dropped away from the text to make room for a clearer sense of purpose to the movie.
The novel is complex to the point of being labyrinthine. The three protagonists: Jack Vincennes has a comfortable spot on the Narcotics squad, busting celebrity dopeheads and getting his picture in the tabloids. But he also has a nasty secret in his past that he will do anything to cover up. Bud White’s mother was killed by his abusive father, and ever since then he’s been chasing wife-beaters, exercising his not inconsiderable talents as a thug. No one believes there’s anything more to Bud than that. Not even Bud believes it, until circumstances change. And finally, Ed Exley: last in a line of hero cops who go back to Scotland Yard, hero in World War II, determined to be the youngest police captain in the history of Los Angeles. Ed is hated by his fellow cops, constantly competing with his father. These three work in a department that is fighting a town ruled by Mickey Cohen, the mobster; a town that is divided by race and class; a town that is half movie stars and half lowlifes.
Into this triangle explodes the Nite Owl massacre: six people shot at close range. Originally, there’s evidence that three young African-American men did it, and no good reason to look elsewhere. But individually, Jack, Bud, and Ed find clues and hints and hunches that lead them from one thing — prostitutes made up to look like movie stars — to another — perverse pornography — to another — Mickey Cohen’s mobster racket — to another — a serial killer and rapist — to another — souped-up heroin that could make millions on the street. The chain of events spirals out of control, and in the final, explosive climax, some find redemption, some find death, and some find both.
Make no mistake, this novel is extremely gritty. One thing that bothered me at first is that the novel is written almost exclusively from third-person limited point of view — indirect discourse and so forth — and so there are a lot of very offensive racial terms in the book. It’s appropriate, given the time, the place, and the characters, but it’s still shocking. If you’re looking for a cozy mystery, put the book down and back away slowly. But Ellroy’s writing is deliriously terse, so noir it’s opaque, with flashes of unexpected wit. His women are vulnerable in this world of violence, but they have strong personalities and they make their own choices — unusual in a noir novel. His protagonists are never other than flawed, but they change and grow. Not everyone gets what he deserves, but there is a kind of rough justice. This was not a clean and tidy novel, but it was oddly satisfying. If this sounds like it might be your thing, let me recommend it as the best of its kind.