Posts Tagged ‘crime novels


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.


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?


Cleaning out the vault: Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town

Nightmare Town: StoriesNightmare Town: Stories by Dashiell Hammett

Here’s another collection of hard-boiled noir from the Dashiell Hammett vault. You might be wondering, with three great collections of his shorter works already out – The Continental Op, The Big Knockover and The Library of America’s Crime Stories and Other Writings – what makes this one worth checking out? After all, isn’t there a reason why these stories remained unavailable for decades?

Those are reasonable questions. Thankfully, they’re pretty easily answered: Nightmare Town isn’t just one of the biggest collections of his work, it’s one of the better ones.

There’s about a dozen stories featuring his most famous characters: the Op and Sam Spade plus a bunch of loose one-off stories. Some are better than others, but they’re all pretty good and there isn’t really a clunker among the bunch. The stories vary wildly in tone and theme: some are more Westerns than Noirs, others tackle unusual viewpoints (a grifter’s wife, an uneducated prizefighter) and a show Hammett’s more playful side. Meanwhile, the stories with The Op and Spade are all vintage Hammett; it’s a surprise they hadn’t been anthologized before.

These usual takes make for some of the best stories here. Take A Man Named Thin: Hammett adeptly tackles a poet-detective who speaks in full, nearly snobbish sentences (and solves both a crime and an ending to a sonnet in an afternoon). It’s a departure from the rest of his oeuvre that almost seamlessly blends humor and larceny. Or take the title story, apocalyptic in it’s unrelenting violence and destruction.

A nice surprise here is an unfinished early version of The Thin Man. This earlier draft doesn’t feature Nick and Nora Charles and is much darker and bleaker than the finished version. Fans of Hammett’s novel should get a kick out of comparing the two.

On the whole, Nightmare Town is a good collection of stories. It’s not a bad introduction to his shorter pieces – I’d still recommend The Continental Op  for those new to Hammett – but it’s a good reference point for fans. It contains more than a few of his best stories (and a couple not included in the Library of America collection, too). The ideal Hammett comp still hasn’t come out, but this is probably the best of the bunch. Recommended for fans of Hammett, hard-boiled prose and crime fiction.