James Ellroy – L.A.Confidential (1990)

With this, the third in the LA Quartet series, Ellroy achieves complete mastery of the form towards which the previous two books (The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere)  have been working; this is not to say that those books are not great but here the elements all come together to form a masterpiece. The chief among those elements can be named as the extraordinary language, the labyrinthine and baroque plotting, the social and political panorama, the brilliant characterisation and the use of three protagonists. It is around the latter that the book develops its narrative structure and much of its strength. The relationship between Bud White, Jack Vincennes and Ed Exley form a nexus around which Ellroy weaves a tale of immense depth and weight – a weight both intellectual and emotional, for the book’s ending is deeply moving. In fact Ellroy has an ability to write moving endings in man, if not all, of his books, but that of L.A.Confidential is among his best, up there with that of Blood’s A Rover.

It is necessary to comment on the film version (1997) of the book. It is a few years since I saw this and while my memories are of an extremely good movie it is, probably of necessity, very much a truncated version of the book in terms of both the narrative and the book’s psychological and social depth. In particular the relationship between Ed Exley and his father and hence Raymond Dieterling (Walt Disney) is, as far as I can recall, almost totally omitted. In the case of the latter this may well have been a little too close to the bone for Hollywood. On the other hand a couple of minor characters were done to perfection; Danny de Vito was great as Sid Hudgens and his performance was of such impact that the character attains more importance than he has in the book. The greatest performance however was that of James Cromwell as Dudley Smith. I have not been able to read any mention of Smith, a character who – rarely for Ellroy – is wholly evil, without getting Cromwell out of my mind. He caught perfectly the man’s bluff Irish charm hiding a spirit of intense psychopathic violence and malevolence.

It is Smith’s presence which gives the Quartet a narrative cohesion almost amounting to a roman fleuve. Indeed there were times during my reading of L.A.Confidential that I was reminded, bizarrely as it may be, of A Dance to the Music of Time. At all events the Quartet is for me at the same sort of literary level as Powell’s masterpiece.

One interesting thing about the book is that the next and final book in the Quartet, White Jazz,  starts to develop in different directions; it is tied into the Quartet by continuing characters (Exley, Smith) but in terms of language and narrative structure it is significantly dissimilar. And from there Ellroy would head in another direction entirely. As it is however L.A.Confidential is without question one of the greatest of mystery novels.