Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: LA Confidential by James Ellroy

LA Confidential
by James Ellroy

Written in: 1990

Synopsis (via goodreads)
: set in 1950s Los Angeles, kicks off with a shoot-out between a rogue ex-cop and a band of gangsters fronted by a crooked police lieutenant. Close on the heels of this scene comes a jarring Christmas Day precinct house riot, in which drunk and rampaging cops viciously beat up a group of jailed Mexican hoodlums. But, as readers will quickly learn, these sudden sprees of violence, laced with evidence of police corruption, are only teasers for the grisly events and pathos that follow this intricate police procedural. 

There must be something wrong with me at the moment, because this is the second book that I've started off feeling lukewarm about and then ended up loving. However, unlike My Sweet Saga which only took a few chapters for me to warm to, I was closer to the halfway mark before I began to really get into this book. I had seen the film first (which I'll review tomorrow), something I try not to do, because the DVD arrived from my mail-in rental service before the book did and I didn't want to wait too long. Perhaps this is partly to blame for my initial reaction to the book, though perhaps not.

The story is an interesting one. It follows three LA cops who are as different as can be. Ed Exley, the intelligent, rational cop determined to follow the law to the letter and climb the ladder to the top at the same time. Wendell "Bud" White, a headstrong emotional cop, with a hatred for men who attack women and a preference to use his fists and gun rather than his head. And Jack Vincennes, the Hollywood cop who has a lot to hide. It covers about 8 years, from the initial bloody Christmas killings, in which a series of drunken cops attacked a group of prisoners in their cells, to the first attempt to solve the Nite Owl murders, where 6 men and women were ruthlessly murdered and then to the reopening of the Nite Owl murders when it becomes clear the original suspects were set up. I'm struggling to tell you much about the cases without giving away the connections, red herrings and hints that are littered throughout the book. So instead I'll be broad.

Though the actual case is important to the story, more important is the actions of the cops in 1950s LA as they try to solve the cases. The three cops that form the focus all approach their jobs differently, and I think it'd be fair to say none of them are doing it purely to "serve and protect". They all have a reason, whether it's to avenge old foes, make up for past mistakes or rise above a favourite brother. Their different approaches leads to some serious antagonism between them, though especially between Exley and White. Exley, who always follows the rules and is undeniably good at what he does is seen as weak because he favours using his intellect in the interview room to get results. White, on the other hand, is seen as a hero because he uses force and aggression, and his brutality is often mistaken for a desire to rid the world of scum. Their conflicting personalities and styles forms the basis for the story, and around them it becomes apparent how many corners are cut, leads falsified and people killed more due to their race than any real evidence.

The book is quite confronting because it takes a very traditional view on the way people lived and thought in the 1950s, so any derogatory words you can think of relating to race is used frequently and with aggression. Similarly, characters in mixed race relationships are looked down upon, females are ejected from their house because they were raped, men are rewarded for aggressive acts, and homosexuality is mocked and despised. Regardless of whether the events are completely accurate or slightly (or not so slightly) exaggerated, the book highlights a world that did at one point exist, where hatred and bigotry were not only acceptable but expected. It was a remarkable journey to take, though completely unsettling and at times sickening.

So as I mentioned at the start it took awhile for me to get into this book. I can't really fault it and give an acceptable reason why it took so long for me to get into it. It's well written, the language isn't convoluted or complex, and while it sometimes is written in that "jive" style it's done infrequently and only when the particular character calls for it. The characters are interesting and multi-layered, and the unfolding of the story through the characters is interesting and never sloppy. For all intents and purposes it's a well-crafted book and I should have liked it. But I really had to force myself to read it at first, and even then I'd only read a small portion of it at a time. Similarly I can't really tell you why I suddenly got into it, I simply did. Perhaps there was the subtlest change in pacing or characterisation which resonated with me. Either way, my initial desire to give it about a 3/5 has changed, however I warn interested readers that they may suffer a similar lack of desire when they approach it themselves.


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