Posts Tagged ‘Crime Fiction


Bad Cops: LA Confidential – James Ellroy

L.A. Confidential (L.A. Quartet, #3)L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

Set in 1950s Los Angeles, LA Confidential is a gritty, dark thriller about bad people. And they’re supposed to be the good guys.

The book generally focuses on three cops. Bud White is brute, a cop who beats people for information and has a vendetta against domestic assault. Ed Exley is a World War II vet, a cold calculating guy who’s following the career his dad set out for him. And Jack Vincennes is a dirty cop who shakes down musicians and sells stories to a local scandal rag.

All three dislike each other: Bud’s seen as a loose cannon, Exley as a squealer (he ratted out some cops who beat a bunch of prisoners up) and Jack as a self-promoting opportunist, a guy trying to get his name and face out there. Soon all three get caught up in a murder investigation, each investigating different aspects and each trying to sabotage the other.

None of these cops are especially nice people. All three aren’t above lying to and abusing prisoners, to getting in wild shootouts that leave bystanders dead. They plant evidence, beat confessions out of people and drop racial slurs so casually it’s like they’re talking about the weather. They’re as crooked as the criminals they prosecute.

Which is kind of the point in noir fiction, really. The whole genre, going back as far as Hammett and Chandler is subversive in it’s treatment of police, refusing to treat them as paragons of society or even as generally good people. And Ellroy’s novel continues this thread.

Even now, nearly 25 years after it’s publication, LA Confidential is still a brutal read and hasn’t lost any of its ability to shock. It deals with hardcore pornography, underage prostitutes and all kinds of police abuses. The main thread deals with a crime called The Nite Owl Massacre, where a handful of people are shot to death in a diner; before long, this murder involves a whole string of underworld people and incorporates everything from torture to blackmail, too.

Key to its brutality is Ellroy’s deadpan and terse prose. He writes in short, rapid bursts, pushing the plot along so quickly there’s hardly time to stop and look at the collateral damage, the people framed for murder, the innocent bystanders blown away in the crossfire and all the civil rights routinely violated.

In the book, there’s a popular TV show called “Badge of Honor,” a local and heroic look at the men in blue. But Ellroy presents it as another cynical take on policing: they look good, but only on the surface. The actors all have dirty secrets and the policeman adviser is not above shaking them down and blackmailing the actors.

The mystery itself is nicely crafted, if a little hard to follow, but it’s almost secondary to the main stories of revenge and double-crossing, of a divided and compromised police department. By the time one gets the Byzantine lines of crime sorted out, the book’s nearly over and all that’s left is a cataclysmic shootout scene on a prison train. But really, pursuit of this crime just about takes a back seat here and there as Ellroy delves deeper and deeper into back-channel politicking, casual racism and cops pissed at other cops.

While I enjoyed this book, after spending so much time with other noir fiction I found it a bit wanting in a couple respects. It was a dark read, but sometimes felt like it was being intentionally pushed into the realm of shocking, like Ellroy was pushing to provoke readers. For example, take all the vice-related crimes. It’s not enough that someone looks at pornography, but they have to look at graphic books full of gore. Frankly, it’s almost cartoonish in how hard it tries to be disturbing.

Indeed, Ellroy’s treatment of sex in this book is interesting: it leads to vice and debasement, undoes the good men are striving for and, by book’s end, is the root cause of evil in the main villain. I’m not saying Ellroy’s a puritan, but I was occasionally reminded of the way David Foster Wallace treated women: he spends so much time trying to shock the reader it’s easy to miss the reactionary undercurrents.

Rating: 6/10. Recommended for people who enjoy noir fiction and don’t mind books with a lot of shooting. But honestly, I’m more into Chandler’s more darkly cynical take on LA, which feels less cartoonish and less judgey.


The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

The Lady in the Lake The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

I’ve written here before about my love of pulpy, gritty noir fiction. There’s Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, Edward Anderson’s bleak look at life on the lam and, my favourite, Raymond Chandler’s series of LA novels.

Later in his life, Chandler’s writings got bitter. A while back, I covered The Little Sister, where Chandler’s resentment towards Hollywood and Los Angeles boils over in a famous section about neon lights. But that was still to come: during the early 1940s, Chandler was still working as a scriptwriter and banging out detective fiction. Released in 1943, The Lady in the Lake is a good example of mid-career Chandler, a noir that’s blunt and brutal, but never veers over into outright cynicism.

It opens in the offices of a perfume magnate Derace Kingsley. His wife’s gone missing and he wants Marlowe to try to track her down. It’s an unusual circumstance; Kingsley professes no great attraction to his wife, who comes and goes as she pleases with whomever she wants. And people say poly relationships are a new thing! Soon Marlowe’s up by San Bernardino and caught up in a death there and dealing with crooked cops, jealous ex-lovers and a sheriff running for re-election.

As far as Marlowe stories go, this one is less angry than The Little Sister. He’s cynical towards the establishment, but he makes even the crooked cops sympathetic. Likewise, it doesn’t drip with smartass cool the way The Big Sleep does: by now, Marlowe’s set in his ways, lipping off to cops, drinking all the time and driving at high speeds. It’s starting to feel like an act, although I’ll admit enjoying scenes like this:

“Degarmo lunged past the desk towards an open elevator beside which an old man sat on a stool waiting for a customer. The clerk snapped at Degarmo’s back like a terrier.
“One moment please. Whom did you wish to see?”
Degarmo spun around on his heel and looked at me wonderingly. “Did he say whom?”
“Yeah but don’t hit him,” I said. “There is such a word.”

Another thing I didn’t like about this one was how telegraphed it felt at times. The big twist is heavily foreshadowed pretty early in the book on two different occasions, stripping some of the suspense from Marlowe’s big monologue at the end. And elsewhere, things get pretty corny: there’s a part where one man shoots a handgun out of someone’s hand, like in an old western.

Rating: 6/10. Sure, Lady in the Lake isn’t Chandler’s best, but it’s still a nice slice of vintage noir: raw, ornery and just about every time the action slows down, someone whips out a gun. Like pizza, even an okay Chandler is still pretty good!


On the Lam in America: Thieves Like Us – Edward Anderson

Thieves Like UsThieves Like Us by Edward Anderson

The American genre is probably the hard-boiled crime story. Sure, people had been writing detective stories in Europe for decades (and in China even before that!) and gothic fiction was occasionally preoccupied with the dark stuff, but it was American writers who turned from following the detectives to showing the criminals. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, it was taking the vase and dropping it in the alley.

Enter Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us. Anderson’s novel opens with a jailbreak and follows three criminals on the lam, never stopping to show any other point-of-view. Together they hide out in shacks, bet on baseball games and drive along dusty backroads. It’s a boring life, only occasionally interrupted by bursts of violence: a car theft here, a bank robbery there. It’s a world away from the sensationalistic, white-knuckle crime sprees that Chandler or Hammett wrote about.

It follows three criminal friends: Chicamaw, T-Dub, and Bowie. They met in the pen, worked up the trust of the warden and escaped together, taking a hostage or two on the way. They steal cars and rob a bank or two, but generally spend most of their time hiding out and lying low. Soon, Bowie falls for the tomboyish Keechie and the two strike out on their own, robbing banks, springing friends from jail and generally causing a ruckus.

Ultimately, what makes Thieves… so interesting is the way it captures the boring, mundane life of a criminal hiding out – playing cards, listening to ball games on the radio – and for the way it juxtaposes this against sensational media accounts of this “dangerous” murderer/bank robber. Not only does he mix in newspaper headlines, but Anderson has his characters read about themselves in the paper and laugh about how the papers have gotten it wrong: they didn’t steal that much; they didn’t blow through that town. But the media has the last laugh, lording over their fate with a bombastic, barely accurate account.

In his preface, Anderson thanks a relative of his he spoke to, who was then in prison for committing crimes like these. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Anderson was pointing a finger at the media for playing up criminals to sell papers or at over-zealous cops, quick to shoot first and ask questions later. But at the same time, Anderson wasn’t exactly a socialist: he later expressed anti-semitic, far-right views. It’s a mixed legacy: I can’t help but wonder if Anderson was trying to make a greater point or just trying to make a quick buck.

Rating: 4/10. Whatever his intentions, Anderson’s novel still resonates some 80 years later. Sure, it’s a quick read and a little dated but generally, it’s interesting and surprisingly sympathetic at times. It’s been made into a good movie by Robert Altman, too. It doesn’t quite hold it’s own against authors like Cain or Hammett, but then again, who does?


The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

The Killer Inside MeThe Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Welcome to a small dusty town in Texas, where there’s not a lot of crime and the local sheriff is a cliche-spouting guy who loves his work whom the community respects, if finds a little slow.

Welcome to hell.

Jim Thompson made his mark with dark, gritty crime novels like this. On the surface, they’re not dissimilar from the usual hardboiled affairs. Once you get a few chapters in, things take a turn for the weird and spiral out of control; take the physical deformities of Carl, the psychotic, paranoid killer in Savage Night.

Things start banal here and quickly go to hell. It follows Lou Ford, a small-town cop in a dusty Texas oil town, who struggles with what he calls The Sickness: his compulsion to kill people. As cover, he plays the fool for the locals, dropping hammy clichés like “Well yes, I guess the son is father of the man, yessir,” with a regularity that fools most of the people, right down to his good-natured girlfriend. But not all.

He starts seeing another woman outside of town, someone who doesn’t just see his darkness but gets off on it. He starts off savagely, violently abusing her; she loves it. It’s all downhill from there for Ford: the more he sees her, the more he succumbs. Soon, he starts murdering. One leads to another, which leads to another and so it goes until there’s a big body count and The Sickness Ford keeps mentioning early in the book fades from view. It’s already taken over.

But the weirdest thing about this book isn’t its violence  (its especially graphic in its violence towards women) but the dark charms of Ford. Thompson lays him out as a good guy, someone the reader doesn’t just trust but wants to see overcome his sickness. It’s a trap: by the time one realizes the good front was all a facade, they’re already ear-deep in this story and like Ford, they’ve got to let it run it’s course. It’s a little reminiscent of other literary monsters like Humbert Humbert: he too spends most of his time trying to seduce and charm readers, tries to convince them he’s really a good guy at heart. And it’s easy to fall for it; god knows most of Central City, Texas did.

As a writer, I’m not sure Thompson ever got more cynical than this. You can read deep into it, wondering exactly what drives people to authority and what darkness they’re trying to hide from view. Alternately, you can read it as a forerunner to more recent, less successful examples of this type: Brett Ellis’ American Psycho or Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter series. Neither protagonist is starkly vicious as Ford and neither writer has Thompson’s restrained, tight prose.

Rating: 6/10. Personally, I’m more of a Savage Night guy, which is darker, bleaker and weirder than The Killer…, ending in a biblical frenzy of paranoia. But I’m not selling The Killer… short, either: it’s a good read by someone who wrote some of the best (and most disturbing) crime thrillers of his time. Recommended, especially the Library of America volume that includes this with several other great noir stories.


Raymond Chandler and Hollywood: The Little Sister reviewed

The Little Sister (Philip Marlowe, #5)

Today he’s best remembered for his Marlowe novels, but there’s a lot more to Raymond Chandler than you might expect. In his younger days, he went to the same school as PG Wodehouse (not at the same time, though), wrote poetry and journalism and fought with the Canadian Army in World War One. Later in life, he gained fame as a novelist but also spent time as a screenwriter for Paramount Pictures.

During his time in Hollywood, Chandler helped write (or wrote himself) the scripts to Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, among others. He was even nominated for a couple of awards. He didn’t like it there. In a 1945 essay for The Atlantic he wrote:

I hold no brief for Hollywood. I have worked there a little over two years, which is far from enough to make me an authority, but more than enough to make me feel pretty thoroughly bored… The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.

These years in Hollywood helped inspire the most savage and ruthless of his novels: 1949’s The Little Sister.

Savage, cynical and Hollywood to the core, this is one of his more underrated books and a full bore blast at the movie industry. When a guy goes missing in the outskirts of LA, his sister hires Marlowe to track him down. Before long, Marlowe’s sucked into the underbelly of Hollywood: drugs, gangsters, tabloid photographers and blackmailers. Here, Chandler takes shots at agents, stuffy Hollywood big wigs and even studio bosses.

Still, this is one of his darker reads, too. Everyone is corrupt, from hotel dicks to agents, and there’s a pretty high body count, even for a Marlowe novel. It’s a dark story where everyone is lying, covering for themselves and don’t care about anyone. In a word, it’s cynical. And it doesn’t hold back.

There’s a theme of bitterness here which pops up once in a while, coming to a boil when Marlowe goes on a rant about how hollow and phony LA is, with him raging on shallow people with “windblown hair and sunglasses.” It’s one of the most bitter moments in anything of Chander’s books, closing with this reflection on the city:

I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that’d been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. (pg 81)

Rating: 7/10. A short but intense read, straddling the line between outright cynicism of the movie industry (something Chandler knew well) and a dark sense of humor, poking fun at the trappings of the detective genre. Recommended for crime fans.