book by James Ellroy
annotation by Janine Coveney
When I first began reading L.A. Confidential, I thought, Why am I reading this again? I had seen the 1997 film adaptation and enjoyed it; if I hadn’t I would have had a lot more trouble becoming engaged in this sprawling crime novel. This is a fast-paced, intense, testosterone-heavy, violent, detailed, and depressing look at the underbelly of Los Angeles in the 1950s. To some degree I like a good detective yarn, but the racial bias of many of the characters, the portrayal of the female characters as whores and liars (though nobody comes off well in this novel), the complicated plot lines, and ‘50s cop lingo wore me down. I had to create a cheat sheet to follow the characters and the plot, as my mind does not work the way Ellroy’s apparently does. Further, the tangled plot snarls and gruesome murders described in this 492-page tome keep me from sleeping at night.
Here’s what I take away from L.A. Confidential that is helpful to me as a writer:
1. A succinct style. Ellroy writes in a way that has been called “hardboiled” or “telegraphic.” His prose is spare, quick, and dense with information. At times his sentences are fragmented and staccato, which reflect the pace of the action and/or his protagonists’ thoughts. His narrative style fits the mindset of the characters and the tenor of the times, it sets the reader down immediately into that world with authority.
My own writing style tends to be overly descriptive, languidly paced, and too distanced from the characters, so reading this Ellroy yarn is a bracing tonic for what ails me. I can see immediately from this work how a tighter, more eye-level narrative approach would benefit my own writing, particular works with some crime elements.
Still, I find the writing in L.A. Confidential a bit jagged for my taste. Ellroy’s narrative has its own descriptive brilliance, but I wouldn’t call it lyrical. There’s a tension in it that reflects the ongoing tension in the life of a LAPD officer who has to constantly make tough decisions, go where others fear to tread, and deal with armed criminals. In that way, it succeeds.
2. Handling of multiple protagonists. Ellroy follows the lives of three separate policemen in L.A. Confidential: Bud White, Ed Exley, and Jack Vincennes. Each of these men is distinct and has a unique background, personal style, and motivation. Even as a third-person narrator, Ellroy is effective in making us understand how each of these characters thinks and why. He’s also a genius at showing how their stories intertwine, how they exist as pawns on the same chessboard. He was so good at delineating each character that he didn’t even have to name them when he began a chapter—you knew from the rhythm of the narrative whose section it was. For anyone writing a multi-character work, this approach is highly effective.
3. The importance of the universal question for each character. In L.A. Confidential, there are a number of questions and complications that drive the narrative. The overall question is, What really happened at the Nite Owl? White, Exley, and Vincennes are all such good detectives, they can’t help but be drawn by the inconsistencies in the evidence to keep unraveling this mystery years after it has occurred—to their detriment. This is the question that ultimately keeps the reader flipping through the pages.
There are several more questions set up throughout the book that have to do with the personal motivation for each of the characters: what it is they really want. Exley wants power and prestige within the LAPD to impress his distant but powerful father, and also needs to keep up the lie of his wartime heroics. White wants to rid the world of those who would abuse women because of seeing his own mother murdered as a child, and he also wants to get even for what happened to his late partner, Stenslund. Vincennes wants to keep the fact that he’s killed two innocent people buried forever. These desires remain constant throughout the novel for these characters, regardless of what else happens in the book. The flip side of all these desires is fear, because some of their desires are well known but others are hidden. What are the consequences when their motives are revealed? We find out in the novel, so there is a satisfactory cause and effect, an ultimate moment of truth that transforms each characters, after which they are never the same (or no longer living, I guess).
So of course this made me look at my own novel and really try to define in a sentence or two what it is that each of my characters is truly after. What will they sacrifice for and lie for if they have to? How are their desires revealed or concealed? What happens when they get what they are after? This may seem like a basic, but when I begin writing I usually start out with a bunch of characters and a vague idea of where I wanted the story to go. While I have learned to outline the action in my novel, I never previously considered plotting it from the inside out, through each character’s individual motivation.
4. Establishment of common values for the fictional world. Here we have a story about Los Angeles cops where the morality is bent. Our socially accepted norms of good and bad behavior are completely upended in this novel. Cops, sworn to serve the public and the greater good, have to lie, cheat, steal, maim, and even kill for the greater good. Someone like Exley is ridiculed and hated for doing things by the book, because these LAPD officers have to be better criminals than the criminals in order to solve their cases and get their convictions. White beats down suspects to get information, but has a soft spot for women in low places. Vincennes has an unholy alliance with a tabloid paper, and a ceremonial position with a TV show and is treated like a celebrity while carrying out dirty work for the DA. There is a sense of brotherhood between the cops on the beat, but the system forces them to compete and snitch on one another to get ahead. In a place of no values, or lax values, anything can happen in the novel and does.
Since playing by the rules is not appreciated or encouraged, the prevailing values for these fictional cops are: 1) It’s better to be alive than dead, 2) Protect your partner and your sources, and 3) The Negroes did it.*
This made me think about right and wrong, about the choices available to characters: Do the right thing? Pretend to do the right thing? Do the wrong thing and hope nobody finds out? Or do the wrong thing and dare somebody to challenge or punish you? For instance, Exley has set himself up as a standard-bearer for do-gooderism, which is why he struggles to keep the fact that he never actually killed all those Japanese soldiers himself under wraps, and why he keeps his relationship with Mexican rape victim Inez off the radar. In his world, marrying a Mexican is unacceptable. When Vincennes feels he has nothing left to lose, he goes to Loew’s party and blurts out to everyone that he does Loew’s dirty work. This is verboten in their world, but at this point Vincennes has fallen off the wagon and doesn’t care. These are choices that Ellroy made for his protagonists, where each action reveals their true characters: Exley outwardly ambitious but with a covert nature; Vincennes losing his grasp and defying the unspoken code to keep silent about their arrangement.
(*In order for me to get past all the negative references to blacks and Mexicans in this book, I had to constantly remind myself that I was reading about a particular society in a particular point in history. In an interview with Beatrice.com in 1997, Ellroy answered the question about the prejudice of his characters versus his own this way:
• JE: When you have characters that the reader empathizes with, who are carrying the story, saying “nigger” and “faggot” and “spic”, it puts people off. Which is fine. I would like to provoke ambiguous responses in my readers. That’s what I want. There’s part of me that would really like to be one of Dudley Smith’s goons and go back and beat up some jazz musicians, and there’s part of me that’s just appalled .… I figured out a while back that I’m an unregenerate white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual. So are my men. Their racism and homophobia is appalling, but it’s germane to their characters, and people will either get that or not get it. That’s that. You can’t really respond to the press and say, “I’m not a racist or a homophobe.” Nobody’s going to believe you.
To sum up, reading L.A. Confidential represented some interesting craft and narrative ideas in four areas: style, writing from multiple POVs, maintaining the central question of the novel, and establishing the value system that the characters operate within.