Category Archives: James Ellroy

Give Me a Good Film Noir and a Bottle of Gin*

As this is posted, it’s 71 years since the release of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which is based, of course, on Raymond Chandler’s work (I know, the ‘photo isn’t from that film. Please read on…). It may not be the first film noir, but it’s certainly one of the best-known. And it consistently makes lists of the top films noir of all time. There’s something about this sort of film that draws the viewer in, even though one knows that things are not going to go well. And the film context can capture subtleties and tension that it’s harder to portray in a novel. Little wonder that there are so many out there, and they’re still being made.

Laura, for instance, is Otto Preminger’s 1944 adaptation of the Vera Caspery novel of the same name. In it, NYPD detective Mark McPherson investigates the death of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt. As he gradually builds a picture of her life, McPherson learns the kind of person she was, the people who surrounded her, and the reasons that there might have been to kill her. There are some surprising twists in the film, as anyone knows who’s seen it. And there’s plenty of unreliable narration, as well as characters who aren’t what they seem.

In 1944, James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity was adapted for film by Billy Wilder, and many critics consider it the gold standard for a classic noir film. In the film, insurance company sales representative Walter Neff (played by Fred McMurray) falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of one of his clients. Incidentally, the ‘photo is of those two actors in those roles. Neff is so besotted by Phyllis that he falls in with her plot to kill her husband. But he hasn’t counted on the sort of person she is, and he hasn’t counted on claims adjuster Barton Keyes. Everything soon spins out of control, and those who’ve seen the film know that it doesn’t end on any happier a note than the novella does.

There are plenty of other classic films noir out there; I’ve only had time to mention just a few. But it’s a very popular sub-genre. So popular, in fact, that the noir film is still being made today, and very successfully. There’ve been plenty of more contemporary, neo-noir pictures; Here are just a few.

Curtis Hanson’s 1997 L.A. Confidential is a sort of loose adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. Like the novel, the film follows the fortunes of three LAPD officers: Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes, who are living and working in 1953 Los Angeles. Also, like the novel, the film portrays the ‘Bloody Christmas’ murders of seven civilians by LAPD police officers, and, later, a shooting at a diner called the Nite Owl. There are plenty of differences between the film and the novel. But both show that noir isn’t confined to the 1940s and 1950s.

Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone was adapted for film in 2007 by Ben Affleck. As fans of both book and film know, it’s the story of what happens when Amanda McCready goes missing. PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro get drawn into the search for the girl when they’re hired by her aunt. They discover that this case isn’t what it seems on the surface. There are several differences between the original novel and the film. But, like the novel, the film raises important questions of moral ambiguity, and there are several people in it who aren’t what they seem.

The same could certainly be said for Bryan Singer’s 1995 film, The Usual Suspects. While this particular film isn’t based on a book, it does have a connection to classic cinema, as the title is taken from a very famous line that Claude Rains says in Michael Curtiz’ 1942 film, Casablanca. The Usual Suspects is the story of Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, and his involvement in murder and arson aboard a ship. He’s interrogated by US Customs agent Dave Kujan, As the interview goes on, we learn in flashback about Kint’s involvement with a team of hijackers, smugglers and drug lords. Saying much more than this will give too much of the film away. But fans know that very little in this film is what it seems. And there are several places in it where it’s clear that the film format tells the story perhaps better than a novel might.

And then there’s Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 No Country For Old Men. If you’re a neo-noir fan, you’ll find the title familiar, as the film is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. The film’s focus (perhaps more than the book’s) is hitman Anton Chigurh, and what happens when Llewelyn Moss comes across money that Chigurth has been hired to recover. That slight difference aside, the film’s quite faithful to the book. And it has all of the ingredients you’d expect in a modern noir film. There’s a desolate landscape, untrustworthy people, danger, and things spinning out of control. The Coen brothers have done other fine neo-noir pictures, too (right, fans of Blood Simple?).

As I mentioned, these are only a few examples of films noir. Want more? Sure ya do. Go visit Sergio, who blogs at Tipping My Fedora. He’s an expert on this and other genres of film. You want to follow his blog if you don’t already. In the meantime, which films noir have you liked the best?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Long Blondes’ Swallow Tattoo.

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Filed under Ben Affleck, Billy Wilder, Bryan Singer, Cormac McCarthy, Curtis Hanson, Dennis Lehane, Ethan Coen, Howard Hawks, James Ellroy, James M. Cain, Joel Coen, Michael Curtiz, Otto Preminger, Raymond Chandler

Sing Out, Louise!*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what I’ll call ‘stage parents.’ These are parents who push their children to excel, far beyond the usual rules about getting schoolwork done, or the usual supports, such as going to games or paying for music lessons. Some parents do this because they honestly believe it’s a good way of ensuring that their child succeeds. They see it as their way of providing for their child. Others arguably do it because it allows them to succeed vicariously. There are other reasons, too.

You see such parents at sporting events, recitals and music competitions, and beauty pageants. They’re also in crime fiction. That makes sense, too, if you think about it. That sort of pressure adds a dimension of conflict and tension to a fictional relationship. It can also make an effective motive for murder.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to Gideon Davies. He’s got rare musical talent, and at twenty-eight, has become a world-class violinist. One day, he discovers to his horror that he can’t play. Desperate to find out what’s blocking his playing, he visits a psychotherapist. In the meantime, Davies’ mother, Eugenie, goes out to dinner one night. She leaves the restaurant and is struck in what looks like a tragic hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate, and find that this was no accident. Both this death and Davies’ struggles are related to a twenty-year-old tragedy. And woven through the story is Davies’ own history as a child who was raised by ‘stage parents,’ who saw his musical talent and pushed him.

James Ellroy’s historical novel, L.A. Confidential, introduces readers to Preston Exley, who is a revered member of the LAPD. His fondest dream is for his son Edmund ‘Ed’ to rise to the top of the ranks, and he pushes, prods, and does whatever he can to make sure that Ed moves on in his career. This pressure is very difficult for Ed, as you can imagine. Still, he wants to please his father. On Christmas Day, 1951, seven civilians are brutally attacked by members of the police force. At first, nothing’s done about it. Then, a groundswell of protests forces the department to do an internal investigation. Ed Exley is caught up in that event, and in another event two years later. This time, it’s a shooting at an all-night diner called the Nite Owl. The two incidents are related, and we gradually learn what links them as the investigation plays out. Throughout the novel, we see how profoundly Ed Exley has been affected by his father’s ‘stage parenting.’

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide introduces readers to Tristan Pembroke. She’s a wealthy and successful beauty pageant coach and judge who’s helped more than one young girl to win. When she’s murdered at a charity art auction, there are several possible suspects, since she’s made quite a number of enemies. One of those suspects is Sara Taylor, a local artist. Sara’s mother-in-law, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor, knows that Sara’s innocent, and decides to clear her name. As the novel goes on, we learn some things about the beauty pageant circuit, what it takes to win, and how many beauty pageant ‘stage mothers’ there are.  Here’s what one of them, Colleen Bannister, says about pageants:

 

‘‘…you know that Pansy [Colleen’s daughter] and I are not competing for fun, we’re competing to win. Nothing makes that girl happier than having one of those ten-story crowns on her head, all glitzy and shiny, and everyone standing up and cheering themselves hoarse.’’

 

It’s very interesting to see how quick Colleen is to say that the pageant circuit is what Pansy wants. The reality is, of course, that Colleen wants it at least as much.

Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me takes readers into the world of competitive gymnastics. Katie and Erick Knox are the proud parents of fifteen-year-old Devon, a truly gifted gymnast. When Coach Teddy Belfour sees her in action, he makes her parents an offer:

 

‘‘Bring her to BelStars [a program he’s started up] and she’ll find the extent of her power.’’

 

He means it, too, and Devon’s parents are more than willing to do that. Before long, Devon’s well on the way to national, even Olympic, fame. Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (or was it an accident?) changes everything. Besides the mystery surrounding the death, Abbott also takes a close look at the families behind competitive athletes. It’s a stark case of ‘stage parents’ who will do whatever it takes to make sure their children are winners.

Of course, not all parents of gifted children are ‘stage parents.’ Take Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, for instance. She’s a retired academic and political scientist. She and her attorney husband, Zack, are also the parents of Taylor, a gifted artist. The Shreves have always known about Taylor’s very special and unusual talent. But they’re determined that she’ll have as normal a childhood as possible. In several story arcs that run through this series (and, actually, in a major plot thread of The Gifted), they’re careful about what they allow her to do. For them, it’s a question of balancing support for her talent with support for the rest of her development.

But not all parents do that. And when parents push their children too hard, the result can be tragedy. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Folks, may I suggest your next blog stop be Clothes in Books? You’ll find it a rich resource of fine reviews and discussion about clothes, popular culture, fiction, and what it all means about us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jule Shyne and Stephen Sondheim’s May We Entertain You?

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Filed under Elizabeth George, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, James Ellroy, Megan Abbott, Riley Adams

There’ll be One Child Born and a World to Carry On*

One of the many things that parents do is pass on certain traditions to their children. That’s one important way in which culture is perpetuated, if you think about it. Those traditions may be religious, but they certainly don’t have to be. It could be a family tradition of winemaking, or a particular way of cooking, or something else. And it’s interesting to see how many of those traditions people follow when they become adults.

We see that in crime fiction, just as we do in real life. For example, John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first of his Dr. Gideon Fell novels, features a family tradition among the Starberths. It seems that several generations of Starberth men served as governors of Chatterham Prison, until the place fell into disuse. The prison itself is in ruins now, but it’s still part of an important Starberth family tradition. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. As proof of his presence, he’s to open the safe in the room, and read and follow the instructions on a piece of paper that’s kept there. Tragically, too, many of those Starberth men have met with untimely ends. There’s even talk the family is cursed. Now, it’s Martin Starberth’s turn. He’s not looking forward to the experience, but he prepares himself to do what he’s supposed to do. On the night of his birthday, though, he dies of an apparent fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. It turns out, though, that Starberth’s death was no accident at all. Fell, who lives nearby, investigates with some help from an American guest, Tad Rampole. They find that this death has very little to do with a family curse. You’re right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual.

Sometimes, a tradition that’s passed on is professional. The child of a police officer or firefighter, etc., follows the same path. And that can lead to a lot of success. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, we meet L.A.P.D. officer Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He bears the heavy burden of being the son of revered police detective, Preston Exley. And Exley the elder intends that his son will go as far as possible in the department. So, he pushes him to climb the proverbial ladder, and berates him when he doesn’t achieve. For his part, Ed works hard and does everything ‘by the book’ – too much so for plenty of people. And the pressure he feels from his father turns him into a player of politics. That has an important impact when seven civilians are attacked by the police – and, two years later, when there’s a shooting at a nightclub. It’s an interesting look at the way a family professional tradition can impact the next generation.

Some family traditions are religious/spiritual in nature. That’s the case with Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee. He is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Although he’s certainly familiar with dominant-culture society, Chee prefers to follow the traditions of his own people. In fact, early in the series, he studies to become a yata’ali – a singer/healer. Chee’s maternal uncle, Frank Sam Nakai, is pleased about this. He himself is a singer, and wants to pass along those rituals. And there aren’t as many young people interested in learning them as there were. So, Nakai works with Chee when he can, and teaches him what he needs to know.

We also see the passing on of religious traditions in Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Dekcer series. When we first meet these sleuths, Lazarus lives with her two sons, Jaakov ‘Jake’ and Shmuel ‘Sammy’ in Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, an Orthodox Jewish community near Los Angeles. Her religion is extremely important to her, so she wants to pass it on to her children. It’s a bit difficult, because she is a widow, but Lazarus keeps the house in the kosher style, speaks to her sons in both English and Hebrew, and so on. They study religion and religious history at the community’s school, too. The other members of the community do much the same thing. It’s part of the bond among the people who live there.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse explores a different sort of tradition. In that novel, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis when a murder occurs there that resembles one he’s already investigating. It’s hoped that, if the same person committed both crimes, it’ll be easier to catch the killer if both teams are working on the case. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was raised on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a joyful prospect, as he had his own reasons for leaving in the first place. As Macleod works through the investigation, we learn about life on the Isle of Lewis. One of the traditions that’s a part of this story is that every year, a group of men travel to An Sgeir, an outcropping of rock fifty miles away. They spend two weeks there, harvesting guga, young gannet that nest on the rock. It’s dangerous and physically very demanding, and not everyone gets to go. In fact, it’s a real mark of distinction to be one of those who do. As new places in the group open up, people ‘sponsor’ sons, nephews, or even grandsons, to join the team. In that way, the tradition of harvesting the guga has been passed along for as long as anyone knows.

And that’s the thing about passing along traditions. People want to preserve parts of their culture, or they want to pass along their profession. So they teach their children, hoping that they will preserve what they’ve learned.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Laura Nyro’s And When I Die. Listen to her version,  Peter, Paul and Mary’s version, and the recording by Blood, Sweat & Tears, and see which one you prefer.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, James Ellroy, John Dickson Carr, Peter May, Tony Hillerman

Always Shouts Out Something Obscene*

An interesting pair of events happened on this day, only five years apart. In 1955, copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were seized as being obscene. Only five years later, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene. It’s all got me to thinking about our standards for what ‘counts’ as too explicit, too violent, or in some other way too graphic. To an extent, beliefs about what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be discussed are a product of the times. But there are arguably other factors at play, too.

For instance, like several writers of her generation, Agatha Christie didn’t really write about explicit sex. And certain other topics were also taboo. Yet, she made her meaning clear enough. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of his death, he was having an affair with Elsa Greer, who was staying in Crale’s home (she was modeling for a painting he was doing). The fact of that relationship, plus some solid evidence, placed Crale’s wife, Caroline, under suspicion. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted, dying in prison a year later. But now, her daughter wants her name cleared, and Poirot agrees to try. Of course, if Caroline Crale was innocent, that means that someone else is guilty. So, part of Poirot’s task is to find out who that someone else might have been. One possibility is family friend Philip Blake. As it turns out, he had strong feelings for Caroline and, in fact, asked her to have an affair with him:
 

‘‘I never liked her, if you understand. But it would have been easy at any moment for me to make love to her…She came to my room. And then, with my arms around her, she told me quite coolly that it was no good! After all, she said, she was a one-man woman.’’
 

In this novel, first published in 1942, there are a few discussions of adultery and illicit affairs. They’re important in the story, but neither is described in detail.

Three years earlier, in 1939, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was published. In that novel, PI Philip Marlowe is hired by Guy Sternwood to stop an extortionist named Arthur Geiger.  When Marlowe tracks Geiger to his office, he finds that Geiger’s just been killed.  Worse, Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, is in the room. She’s too drugged or dazed to be of much help, but Marlowe doesn’t want her dragged into the situation any more than necessary. So, he gets her out of the room. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods, but the truth turns out to be quite different. At one point, for instance, Carmen turns up in Marlowe’s place (he actually finds her in his bed), and her purpose is obviously to seduce him:
 

‘Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right.’
 

There’s more, but this should be enough to show that, even though this novel was published a few years before Five Little Pigs, it’s more explicit. Most people classify the Philip Marlowe novels as noir, which tends to be more graphic than is the work of more traditional Golden Age authors such as Christie. So, part of what ‘counts’ as too much explicitness could very well be a matter of sub-genre. For instance, cosy mysteries are, in part, defined by their lack of explicitness.

Another factor at play here may be context. For example, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series takes place during the Tudor years. Shardlake is an attorney, which gets him involved in the murder cases he investigates. Throughout the series, there are references, for instance, to affairs. But they’re more oblique references, and aren’t described in detail. It’s not because Sansom is required to avoid explicitness. Rather, that series isn’t the right context for it. It takes place at a time when such things were not discussed (at least publicly) using the ‘blow by blow’ accounts that we sometimes see in today’s novels. So a very graphic description wouldn’t really fit in with the rest of the context.

On the other hand, Lawrence Block’s Small Town, published in the same year (2003) as the first Matthew Shardlake novel, is quite different. It features a serial killer nicknamed the Carpenter, and a collection of different New York characters, including a dominatrix and the ex-police commissioner who falls in love with her. There’s plenty of drug use, sex, and other explicitness in this novel. It’s that sort of story. Block doesn’t include those aspects for ‘shock value.’

There’s also, of course, the matter of personal taste. Some readers are bothered by any mention of sex beyond the most oblique reference. Others don’t mind the detail. And, although the focus in this post has mostly been about sex, the same might be said for anything else that could be considered ‘obscene.’

For instance, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet has quite a lot of extremely explicit language. The same goes for Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town. Christopher Brookmyre’s work also can get quite explicit. Many readers prefer to avoid that sort of language; others aren’t so bothered by it. Is it obscene? That’s a difficult question to answer. I would argue (and please feel free to differ with me if you do) that the language in those books is not out of context. That is, it’s not put there for shock value. It’s woven into the stories and helps to give them their ‘feel.’ That said, though, there’s no denying that it’s profanity, and profanity offends some readers (or at least, it’s language they’re rather not read or hear).

This is, perhaps, part of why it’s so difficult to define ‘obscene. What ‘counts’ as obscene varies a great deal based on time, on context, on individual taste, and on other things. So, while there are some things that just about all of us would call obscene, there are others that aren’t at all so clear. What’s your view? What’s your ‘barometer,’ if you have one?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Mean Mr. Mustard.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Allen Ginsberg, C.J. Sansom, Christopher Brookmyre, D.H. Lawrence, James Ellroy, Karin Slaughter, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler

In The Spotlight: James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential

Hello, All,

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

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Filed under James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential