Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. James Ellroy is widely regarded as one of the masters of the modern noir novel. I’ve been remiss in not spotlighting his work, so let’s rectify that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.
This novel, which takes place between 1951 and 1958, begins on Christmas Day, 1951. On that day, known as ‘Bloody Christmas,’ seven civilians were brutally attacked by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. The incident wasn’t investigated thoroughly until after several protests, and the internal investigation led to indictments and other discipline. This event is one of the two central cases of the novel.
In the lead-up to Bloody Christmas, we are introduced to three major characters, all police officers, whose histories will be intertwined. One is Wendell ‘Bud’ White. Another is Jack ‘Trashcan’ Vincennes. The third is Ed Exley. Each has his own backstory (more on that shortly) and all are caught up in what happens just before, during, and after Bloody Christmas. In fact, that incident has a profound impact on each man, both personally and professionally.
Two years later, another major incident happens, which again draws the three men into the same web. This time, it’s a shooting at the Nite Owl diner. The tragedy leaves six people dead and the police with a media nightmare as they try to catch the killer or killers. At first, it’s not clear whether the shootings were targeted at specific victims, or simply intended to wreak havoc. So, the police follow up on the identities of the victims. And this leads them to unearth other criminal activity.
Slowly, we learn what really happened at the Nite Owl, and why the shootings occurred. We also see the results of Bloody Christmas play out, both inside and outside the LAPD. And we see the links between the two.
This novel is as much a character study as it is anything. So, we learn quite a lot about White, Vincennes, and Exley. White witnessed his mother’s murder, and it’s left him with what we now call PTSD. In fact, he’s a proverbial ticking time bomb. He has the reputation of being a thug who doesn’t worry about the niceties of police policy. On the one hand, that spells a lot of trouble. On the other, it means he’s the sort of copper who goes after the ‘bad guys’ and isn’t afraid to play dirty to keep others safe.
Vincennes has been a bit worn down by his career in the department. But he tries to do a good job. He’s hampered, though, but a secret he’s keeping. He has a dark incident in his past that he’s trying to forget – something he hasn’t even told his wife, Karen. If it came out, his career could very well be over. Certainly, he’d sacrifice his reputation. He’s gotten a little too friendly with alcohol and, sometimes, other drugs, mostly as a way to get up every day and keep doing his job.
For his part, Exley is the son of a very successful police officer. He walks in his father’s shadow, and one of his main goals is to live up to his father’s expectations. Matters are not helped by the fact that his father pushes his son to be a police hero and move up the ranks of the department.
None of these characters is set up to be ‘the good guy’ or ‘the bad guy.’ As is the case with many noir novels, it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. And there are plenty of characters who are very much both.
This isn’t just a character study, though. It’s a noir police thriller. So, readers go behind the scenes at the LAPD. There are investigations, there’s making sense of evidence, and so on. But there are also payoffs, backroom deals, political handouts, and ‘patch wars.’ There’s very little transparency, and citizens have very little idea of what’s really going on. What’s more, it’s very hard to tell at times who the ‘good guys’ are and who the ‘bad guys’ are. Ellroy’s LAPD has plenty of members who are deeply bigoted and sexist, and this plays out in the way in which the cases in this novel are pursued. Readers who dislike slurs will want to know that there are a lot of them in this novel.
There is also great deal of violence in the novel. Readers who prefer their violence to be ‘off stage’ will want to know that this isn’t that sort of novel. That said, though, the violence – and some of it is brutal – explains why some of the characters behave the way they do.
Consistent with the noir tradition, this story doesn’t have one of those endings where everything is all right again, and the ‘good guys’ win. The cases described in story involve great cost to a lot of people, and there is a real sense that nothing will ever be the same.
Fans of Ellroy will be familiar with his distinctive writing style, and this novel is an example of it. Whether or not you enjoy it or are put off by it will depend on your feelings about the style. Few people are neutral on it.
L.A. Confidential tells the very ugly, gritty story of Bloody Christmas, and the attitudes that led to it. It follows three major characters who are caught up in that tragedy, and traces their lives afterwards. It offers an unvarnished look at the seamy side of Los Angeles in the 1950s, and features a police department caught between traditions that no longer work (or, perhaps they never did) and a more contemporary approach to policing. But what’s your view? Have you read L.A. Confidential? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 20 March/Tuesday, 21 March – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
Monday, 27 March/Tuesday 28 March – Death of an Old Goat – Robert Barnard
Monday, 3 April/Tuesday 4 April – Peepshow – Leigh Redhead