LA Confidential [1990]

On a pretty off-hand recommendation from and I picked up a copy of White Jazz by James Ellroy a couple of months ago.

It was brutal. Very brutal. The sum of human vices excluded from cameo appearances was minimal, and Ellroy seemed unwilling to spare any level of suffering for his protagonists. The writing style was harsh and staccato: bursts of consciousness streams and impressions that were a trial to untangle into a flowing picture at first, but which by the end seemed like the only option for telling a story of such rage and convolution.

I found it very compelling: I hardly put it down, at turns horrified and fascinated.

So I went looking for something else to read and whilst in Bizy Bees, I saw a copy of LA Confidential cheap. With some fear in my heart based on the visceral discomfort of White Jazz, but knowing that the movie was very good, and had the author’s approval, I opened Page 1.

Like White Jazz, this is not a novel for the squeemish or soft hearted. A lot of bad things happen in awful ways. Primarily to bad people, because almost everyone is bad. But also to good people. Almost every form of cruelty and depravity omitted from White Jazz is included at least by mention in LA Confidential. When reading it, I thought back to Morgue’s Kill Puppies for Satan outing at KapCon. What’s the appeal of a novel about bad people doing bad things? In some ways, it’s simple pandering to our baser instincts, a dark side of our natures that we shun except in the permissive environment of fiction.

There were a couple of other comparisons going on in my mind. Obviously I compared it to LA Confidential – which must be one of the finest noir movies ever made. There are a large number of differences, but I think after reading the book I appreciated more how good a movie was made. The great lamentation being made about Watchmen‘s adaptation is that it is too faithful, capturing the form but not the spirit of the original. But LA Confidential‘s movie is a movie about the same things as the book, it’s not the movie of the book. Same ingredients, different preparation.

The other major comparison in my mind was with the tame and safe works of Agatha Christie. Her murder novels set in the mid 1950s were what we now regard as the classic mytery template, novels like Mrs McGinty’s Dead and After the Funeral. After the Funeral is pretty much a parody of itself by modern standards, almost quaint in feel, nothing like the visceral brutality in Ellroy’s world. On the whole Christie gives readers the same puzzle-solving fun, without parading deprativity.

The question is most definitely: why not? In our criminal justice system, pretty much the worst crime you can committ is murder: it carries the highest penalties. On the basis of time handed down for conviction, it is the worst. On that basis, we could think that in every other sense, other crimes are lesser. However, I don’t think that tells the whole story. The way Christie presents a lot of her murders, they are suitable for a bit of titilation at a dinner party – my favourite Christie titilation is Lord Edgeware Dies, virtually a parlour-trick of a crime entirely based around a gimmick. She never presents any material that couldn’t be discussed in polite company: her killers always have a motive that a jury could understand, if not agree with.

Ellroy recognises that a range of other crimes actually have more emotional impact, and sees the greater scope of motives. There’s almost nothing in his novels that you could discuss while eating except in the baldest and most general ways. Which is why Kill Puppies for Satan came to mind. Morgue described it at the time as being somehow “real” – and I think that he meant that it generated real emotions during the game. Ellroy works similarly: creating real feelings of horror and sadness in a way inaccessible in Christie.

Well, this wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t try and tie it all together. Or at least talk directly about the book. It’s good. But it’s a behemoth: convoluted, at times hard to follow, with a large cast not all of whom are important in and of themselves, with twists and turns a plenty. What it lacked was elegance, and a character I could really care about at all: almost everyone was irredeemable in some way. In plain terms, it’s a Hustler mag to Christie’s page 3 girls: if that’s your thing, go for it.

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7 Responses to LA Confidential [1990]

  1. I would also recommend ‘American Tabloid’ by Ellroy. For me, it is the best of his books.


  2. mr_orgue says:

    Which is why Kill Puppies for Satan came to mind. Morgue described it at the time as being somehow “real” – and I think that he meant that it generated real emotions during the game. Ellroy works similarly: creating real feelings of horror and sadness in a way inaccessible in Christie.

    This is so dead-on right, it helps me understand it better.

  3. debzter says:

    Cool, now I’m even more keen to get onto reading some Ellroy. There were a couple of teachers in my English department who thought that my education was sadly lacking for having not read any.

    In defense of Christie, however, there is a considerable range in the horror and gritty realism of her novels. The Poirot novels (especially the later ones) tend to be the iconic intellectual puzzle where Poirot invariably uses the grey cells to solve a mystery that is never particularly gory or scary in its description. Most of them even have the theatrical library scene where all the suspects are gathered round and he showcases his great detective skills by revealing who did it. The motives are, as you say, always understandable and, for want of a better word, clean.

    Miss Marple mysteries tend to be more about the seething cesspool of petty human emotions that lie beneath the surface in English villages. The murder or murders provide the motivation to start digging up the dirt on everyone before the killer strikes again.

    However, her works with lesser known detectives and more especially the novels that are detectiveless tend to be more grizzly. Death comes as the end, a novel set entirely in ancient Egypt, is excellent at creating creepy atmosphere and it doesn’t shy away from the nastier aspects of the murder or their daily life for that matter.

    • mashugenah says:

      In defense of Christie, however, there is a considerable range in the horror and gritty realism of her novels.

      Sorry Debz, can’t really back you on that. IME, they’re all very romanticised, and shy away from the worst human vices. For example, drug addicts are very rare, and never described in the throes of their habits. There are no rapes at all that I can think of, and only a handful of victims that aren’t adults (the girl in Hallow’een Party is the only one I can think of specifically, but I think there may be one in Cat Amongst the Pigeons too.) Christie’s audience would have been shocked and appalled by those kinds of events, and she was all about delivering what the audience wanted.

      There are some moments in Christie when I went “gah!” – but they’re in like two novels, and only described in passing. The main one is the suicide in Cards on the Table, but that’s more for its utter bizareness than a gut-wrenching “OMG hope that never happens to anyone I know” way.

      Death comes as the end

      This is one of a handful I haven’t read. I own about 70 of the 80ish she wrote, but this isn’t one (I haven’t read any of the romance novels – is that where I should be looking for the horror? 😉 ). I own all of the 16 Marple stories, but… I hate Miss Marple, so haven’t read them in 15 or more years, so they’re a bit hazy.

  4. debzter says:

    True, she never delves into icky sex-related murders but I personally don’t find that a bad thing. I suppose your point is that the murders are always very clean and there’s nothing to offend the reader’s delicate sensibilities.

    I just don’t agree that ‘real feelings of horror and sadness are inaccessible in Christie’. While the murders tend to lack the ‘ew, gross’ horror, I have found some were quite chilling and I felt a genuine sense of pity for the victims. There are some books where the murders are polite and have little emotional impact on the reader, but others are actually tense and scary in parts. The end of ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ scared the heck out of me when I read it, and both ‘The Mousetrap’ and ‘And then there were none’ (based on Ten little Indians) are pretty unrelentingly cruel to the characters.

    Her works may not stand up well against Ellroy for raw impact but I’ve found some of them a lot more evocative then some modern murder mysteries that revell in CSI style graphic forensic descriptions and the unpleasant sexual aspects of serial killers like Cornwall, Reichs, Deaver and Pattinson.

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