Posts Tagged ‘noir


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.


Good Tunes and Bad Vibes: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent ViceInherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

At once Thomas Pynchon at his wildest and most accessible, funny and insightful and a mystery novel that isn’t really, Inherent Vice is a wild, great read.

Generally when people think of Pynchon, they think of big doorstopper books, weighty tomes of 800 or more pages. Hell, I read Against the Day earlier this year and the thing clocked in at over 1,000 pages. And even then, I wanted it to go on longer. This wasn’t like that at all.

For one thing, IV is a lot tighter than most of his books: I think only Lot 49 is shorter. But it’s also messy, a mystery that’s at once low-stakes and wide-ranging, impossibly high-reaching but also nicely wrapped up by book’s end with what seems like not a lot of revelation, but a tidy package of police corruption and organized crime.

Maybe its all the pot Doc Sportello smokes, but Pynchon’s circa-1970 Los Angeles exists in a kind of haze. It’s shadowy, maybe a little paranoid and definitely a little hungry: Doc eats everything from Tex-Mex to Greek to, yes, Pizza. Wouldn’t be a Pynchon novel without a slice or two. But it’s also a detailed place, packed with tidy, accurate details he uses to colour his city. One example: not only does he reference Zubin Mehta, then-conductor of the LA Philharmonic, but he casually refers to a show he did with Frank Zappa and the Mothers in yes, mid-1970. It’s impressive stuff.

The plot itself is reminiscent of detective noir, although not entirely of it. Millionare land devloper Mickey Wolfmann has gone missing and so does his mistress. While investigating, Doc is knocked out and a witness dies in front of Doc’s car. Before long, there’s a group of heroin dealers, a mysterious syndicate of dentists and a star LAPD detective named Bigfoot Bjornson are all involved, each after Doc in their own angle.
At times, I was reminded of Raymond Chandler’s fiction (especially The Lady in the Lake which has a similar plot), but as a whole, the mystery doesn’t really seem like the point here. It drives along the plot, but more as a device for Pynchon’s observations on society, where it was headed and where it is now. Mixed between the splashes of smoking and gritty detective work are sly comments on federal funding for police departments, the militarization of small police forces and big money’s influence on the government.

The book’s title comes from an insurance term referring to a hidden defect that destroys a product. In this book, the hidden impact of money and greed is what’s ripping apart the California Doc knows and loves. The police are paying off hippies to rat out their friends with money they get from the government, which only increases as more people inform on others. Landscapers move into communities and rip them apart to make new, more desirable places to live. And the musicians are slowly getting zombified.

But to me, it feels like gentrification is right at the book’s heart. Right at the beginning he opens with a quote on the beach. And more than once Pynchon writes about small neighbourhoods getting gutted and replaced by prefab, drab housing complexes. In one memorable scene, people wander around looking for a place that’s not there anymore:

“Now and then at the edges of the windshield, Doc spotted black pedestrians, bewildered as Tariq must have been, maybe also looking for the old neighborhood, for rooms lived in day after day, solid as the axes of space, now taken away into commotion and ruin.” (pg 19)

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. In some respects, IV is his funniest book. Doc’s stoner friend Denis is a constant supply of hilarious doped-up logic (“why is there chicken of the sea but no tuna of the land?”) and the rest of the cast is no slouch. There’s gambling on police investigations, sly comebacks, silly names and even a few songs here.

Compared to his other novels, IV initially seems like a departure, but quickly settles alongside his other books. He has the same vague paranoia and quick sense of humor he showed in Vineland, but here the cast is more human and has more of a spark to their lives. Likewise, it’s not as sprawling as Against the Day or Mason and Dixon, but even within it’s confines still ranges along the California/Nevada border.

If I had to compare this to his other novels I’ve read, I’d probably slot it ahead of Vineland and behind M&D and AtD. It’s a quick, fun ride and his observations into society are fascinating. He wrote this one over a half-decade ago, but we’re still having discussions about some of the points he slyly raises. Overall, IV is good and a good starting place for Pynchon newbies, but I’d halt before calling it his most successful novel, either. And if you’re looking for something up the noir genre, you’re bound to be a little disappointed, too.


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.