Wednesday, January 21, 2015

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL by James Ellroy

*Book 3 of the L.A. Quartet*

L.A. Confidential feels like the book that James Ellroy has been preparing for and working up to
during his entire career up to this point. He takes all of the themes he explored in previous novels and packs them into a book that's an even larger, more epic tale of crime, perversion, and Hollywood corruption than any of his previous books. L.A. Confidential tells the story of three LAPD officers who are initially at odds with one another after the infamous Bloody Christmas police brutality scandal and once again cross paths after a bloody massacre at the Nite Owl coffee shop in Hollywood. At first, each of them are involved in separate investigations. Slowly these mysteries all seem to connect to the Nite Owl in some way and ultimately, the men must learn to put there differences aside as they realize that they are neck deep in a scandal bigger than anything they could've imagined, one that goes beyond the Nite Owl Massacre, that involves filth porn, heroin, tabloid extortion, a popular kid's theme park (Disneyland anyone?), and high-class whores cut to look like movie stars.

I mentioned before that the novel is even more epic than the previous ones in the L.A. Quartet, but is so huge that it's hard to keep track of at times, which makes for a slower read than the more focused stories in The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere. It has the most complicated mystery and conspiracy that I've ever read, so complicated that it seems to involve ever person living in L.A. County, and even the characters sometimes have to create graphs to keep track of everything. But no one could've wrangled all of these threads into something coherent other than author James Ellroy, showing his tremendous skill as a writer. And this is the novel where he begins his experimentation with his writing style, moving toward the clipped, manic, jazzy prose that he uses in later novels.

As usual, the characters in this were fascinating, strong men with weaknesses and dark secrets, who through their investigation, seek something close to redemption. Edmund Exley is a young officer living under his father's shadow and a war hero reputation based on a lie, and who is an ambitious, by-the-book, do-gooder who believes in the pursuit of absolute justice and willing to rat out his fellow officers and be hated by everyone to move up in the department. Wendell "Bud" White is a bruising, hard co cop, haunted by witnessing the violent murder of his mother by his father, and takes it out on woman beaters that he arrests. He hates the fact that he's seen as lacking the intelligence to be a good detective, only good with his fists, and he becomes obsessed with privately investigating a string of hooker murders. And finally there's "Trashcan" Jack Vincennes, a Narcotics officer with his own skeletons in his closet, who's dead set on arresting drug users, but more importantly, he strives for Hollywood stardom, consulting on a hit cop show, rousts celebrity druggies, and gives exclusive dirt to tabloid writer Sid Hudgens and his Hush Hush scandal mag in exchange for cash, article write-ups, and a photo op. He begins investigating the production of porno picture books, and we realize that Trashcan Jack might also have an unhealthy obsession with what's between the pages of the books that he finds. The way that each story evolves and interconnects is truly something to behold! This book has enough story for 5 novels, but somehow it's told in about 500 pages. How that's even possible is beyond me...

The movie based on this book is one of my top five favorites, and reading this novel made me appreciate it even more. I've realized it's probably the best movie adaptation of a book to date. How it takes this loaded story that could be adapted into a 10-part miniseries, and successfully converts it into an exciting and engaging 2 hour, 20 minute movie is a feat that really should be recognized. Obviously the movie is missing lots of the story from the book, but the movie really stands on it's own, and skillfully combines multiple characters and creates new scenes and themes that still works to tell the story in an effective way. Although it's sadly missing much of Jack Vincennes's intriguing storyline, it introduces new backstory elements that I wish were in the book (Rollo Tomasi), strengthens the Bud and Exley dynamic, and makes Lynn Bracken an even stronger character. The fact that the movie is at times even better than the book and can stand on it's own really says something about the adaptation. I would suggest both seeing the movie and reading the book, as there is something to be gained by both.

James Ellroy is quickly becoming one of my favorites and I can't wait to soon read White Jazz and his other books. Anyway Dear Reader, that's all the dirt that's fit to print. And you heard it here first, off-the-record, on the QT, and very Hush Hush.



  1. First read this back in the '90s, reread it some months back. Still great, but some of the intense masculinity got a little too toxic for me this time! Perhaps dated is a better word (the '80s when this came out it was cutting edge however). Still, incredible book, great movie, of course they had to cut out the monstrous cartoons! Your point that "it's probably the best movie adaptation of a book to date" is fair, but I'd wager the book-to-screen journey of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to be the absolute finest, but that's just me!

    WHITE JAZZ is awesome, and I recall casting it in my head as I read it. James Woods, Nick Nolte, and John Cusack were all in it somewhere...

  2. Great point with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS! I should watch them both again but I still feel that LA CONFIDENTIAL is better, although I agree, I would put SILENCE OF THE LAMBS up there as one of the best adaptations. It surpassed the book in almost every way. But thinking about it more, unlike Confidential, it was more of an improvement over the book, which might give it the edge as best adaptation!


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