Monday, July 12, 2010

L A Confidential

By James Ellroy

Well, it doesn't get much better than this I think. I went looking for the best in noir fiction and I found it. Chandler has finally been eclipsed.

Unfortunately I read this book and 'White Jazz' in the wrong order, so I messed up and got a few spoilers, but it was a great read anyway.

LA Confidential starts off as one might expect if one has seen the film. There are a few differences of course, but these are minor details, the sort of thing you might expect when a novel has been truncated to the medium of cinema. Then about a third of the way in, it all suddenly warps beyond recognition. The story expands far beyond the parameters of the film and Ellroy unleashes his trademark tangle of plot lines so by the time you've reached the end, you don't have a clue whether you're going to see the same conclusion or not and what your reading is every bit as good as if you'd never been corrupted by the film.

Mostly the characters are the same, only now they are bigger, fleshed out, with high-lights and complexities that were lost in the transfer to cinema. Jack Vincennes (played by the always excellent Kevin Spacey in the film) is particularly well done. Here he is a far more complex character than even Spacey can convey, though his personality as played by Spacey is largely intact. Jack Vincennes plays a much bigger role in the book, complementing the trio of main characters perfectly. Bud White (played by Russell Crowe in the film) is much the same as in the film. The powerfully built man who is regarded as tough because he punishes men who hit women, but who yearns to be a detective rather than a goon. Ed Exley (played in the film by Guy Pearce), is the ambitious young police officer who's brilliance takes him all the way, but at a terrible price. In the book, that price is even higher. Exley is a compelling character, full of driven contradictions, but essentially pure. Well defined. The three cops are brought together by circumstance and they struggle against the invisible, almost omnipotent power of the antagonist, Dudley Smith.

Smith (played by James Cromwell in the movie) is the red thread between all four novels in Ellroy's LA quartet and his menace fluctuates according to where the reader is along the time line. In this, the third book, Smith is at the height of his power but his ability to influence events is already beginning to show cracks. Having established who and what Smith is, the reader (if they have read the first two novels) is already primed to fear him, so Ellroy keeps Smith at arms length for most of the novel. You know he's there, but he's not the immediate threat.

If you've seen the film then you know Smith is the bad guy, but the second half of the story is so different that you don't know whats going to happen any way. In the film Smith shoots Vincennes, but in the book he doesn't... read it yourself if you want to know more. If your a fan of the genre, you won't regret it.


White Jazz

By James Ellroy

Ellroy seems to be one of those authors who love to challenge themselves and this book is a prime example of a challenge. The story itself is wonderfully crafted, with all the multiple plots I now think of as typical Ellroy, but the style in which it is written is slightly annoying. Written in a staccato first person style, the book, which is long and complex, feels almost like it was jotted down on a post it pad by some one engaged in a very long meeting. To make matters worse, Ellroy throws in headlines and newspaper articles to tell the story and I found this distracting. Apparently the original was twice as long as the published version and I can only guess at what was cut out as the story is so complex and detailed already.

Dave Klein is a dirty cop, and by dirty we mean bodies. Mob hits. Bag man. As bad as it gets, and yet he's our main character, the hero of the piece... in as much as Ellroy ever has heroes.

Klein, who is LAPD Vice, gets put on a strange case of burglary. Some one has broken into the house of a drug dealer named Kafesjian and killed his dogs in a gruesome manner. Kafesjian is a sanctioned drug dealer, protected by the LAPD as a means of controlling the city drug trade. It doesn't take long for the hand of Dudley Smith to become apparent. Klein who is as dirty as Smith, stays out of his way as much as possible, but things are reaching a conclusion. Ed Exley is now Smith's superior and is out to destroy him. along the way Klein falls in love, but can his conscience allow it?

The last of the LA Quartet, 'White Jazz' is not as good as 'LA Confidential', but it comes very close. If it hadn't been written in the strange 'stream of consciousness' way it is, I would have given it five stars also.

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