L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
As the boxing cliché goes, style makes fights, and these two L.A. noir heavyweights are about as evenly matched as Marquez vs. Pacquiao — in terms of voice, time period and theme. Both are power punchers, waiting to throw that monster hook and knock their opponent out cold. L.A. Confidential, penned by one of the great literary figures in our city, James Ellroy, arrives into this metaphorical arena with all the glitz, myth, and hype of a superstar. And John Gregory Dunne, the late husband to another classic L.A. novelist, Joan Didion, is sitting in the corner, staring through Ellroy's mean mug with an underdog focus worthy of a champion.
Now a woman in a bikini struts across the canvas with the #1 on a sign. Ellroy spits blood (probably not his own) onto the canvas. Ding, ding, ding.
While many classic L.A. novels show the reader sunshine, beautiful people and immaculate natural beauty, noir is about taking the reader to the underground, to the dirty crevices of the City of Angels, to the dangerous toothless grins and the remnants of failure and violence. And the detective is often the device that carries the reader into this world.
In John Gregory Dunne's True Confessions, published in 1977, Tom Spellacy is on the case of The Virgin Tramp murder. The body is found cut in two and a votive candle shoved up the victim's vagina. There are very little leads for Spellacy, and while the thread of the story follows Spellacy attempting to solve the crime, the crux of the novel seems to revolve around his deep inner life and his complicated relationship with his brother, the Right Revered Monsignor Desmond Spellacy.
As for L.A. Confidential, the story is told mainly in three points of view: Bud White, Jack Vincennes and Ed Exley. But the main character, the hero, is clearly Exley — an ambitious police officer and the son of a rich former LAPD detective turned engineer. Exley is in pursuit of finding the killer from the Night Owl, where five people were murdered in a coffee shop in the crime of the century. (The name brings to mind Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.) But what makes Exley so interesting, so compelling as a character, is his pursuit of absolute justice.
If Spellacy could jump out of his fictional world and into L.A. Confidential, he would probably slap Exley in the face when he talked about absolute justice — part of the reason Spellacy is so interesting as a character. For example, Spellacy spends the entire book tracking down “The Virgin Tramp” killer, and when he finally finds out “who done it,” (spoiler alert) he buries the identity of the real killer and manipulates evidence to arrest another crime boss, Jack Amsterdam. While he's taking a known mob boss off the streets, he's still manipulating information to serve his version of justice and satisfy personal vendettas. Here's how Spellacy eventually views the victim:
She wasn't a girl, Tom Spellacy thought. She was a headline. Someone to read about who wasn't your sister. Someone to get your rocks off over…
In Ellroy's L.A., Exley is seen, initially, as an outcast in the LAPD — a traitor for testifying against fellow police officers for “Bloody Christmas” and the police beatings of men in custody. But in a world with so many corrupt cops, Exley seems to actually care about his duty as a police officer and finding the killer of a terrible crime. As the narrative unfolds, his morals become more complicated, and the reader wonders how much his desire for finding the killer is motivated by personal ambition. But along the way in solving the case, Exley has to play the same game as Spellacy, manipulating information and using it to serve his own purposes.
Both novels are hardboiled and set in post World War II Los Angeles — a time when abortion clinics were a racket and marijuana was called tea. The worlds of these books are filled with cunning and opportunistic journalists, porn stars, mobsters, complicated politics, and crime. One of the big differences, however, between True Confessions and L.A. Confidential is the relationship between organized crime and religion. In Ellroy's world, the metaphorical religion of many of the characters is organized crime, accompanied with movie stars, heroin, plastic surgery, and smut; in Dunne's world, religion — including the priests, the cardinals, the L.A. archdiocese — is actually tied to organized crime, as much as the green-card smugglers, bruisers and white-collar criminals.
Both books are incredible and gripping — bedrocks in the noir genre. But which is a better L.A. novel?
When most people think of Los Angeles, even the native angelenos, it's hard to imagine that Catholicism is the first thing that comes to mind. And a significant amount of True Confessions is centered on the behind-the-scene politics of the Cardinal and his minions. It's a fascinating world, and it's a huge part of Los Angeles' history. But when it comes to the best novel that helps identify and brand the city, Catholic politics has to take a back seat. Ellroy's focus on the LAPD, the emergence of sexual violence associated with the porn industry, and plastic surgery used to mask identity are all themes at the heart of our city's cultural foundation — or at least the more intriguing ones.
In the end, True Confessions is a genre novel that feels literary, lyrical and emotional. It's profound in its character insight. But L.A. Confidential is much more dramatic. A famous Greek once said that great plots are about complicated and dramatic reversals of the status quo, and the changes that take place to the characters in L.A. Confidential — the ups and downs, the deaths, the mistaken identities — are emblematic of our city.
And as I closed both books, I imagined I was turning the last page of Los Angeles — which was the more appropriate end?
In one of them, the last line was:
Some men get the world, some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona. You're in the former, but my God I don't envy you the blood on your conscience.
There's no question.
The Winner: L.A. Confidential