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:
The noir finals! There are few things L.A. does better than stylishly dark crime stories full of desperate characters in bleak settings. We invented film noir, even if it took a French critic to provide its name. And before that were the books that inspired the movies — the tautly written paperbacks featuring bad dames and the violent men who lusted for them. True, L.A. can't lay claim to the man who first perfected the hardboiled detective, Dashiell Hammett, but the writers he inspired, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, surpassed the master. And they were both L.A. writers through and through.
Which is why, to this reader, the final matchup in our Noir category is a bit of a disappointment. How can we be seeking the best noir L.A. novel ever without Raymond Chandler in the running?
But so it goes. In the final matchup of the Noir bracket, instead of Chandler, we have two novels by modern writers, James Ellroy and Michael Connelly, who were inspired by him. Both are here by virtue of slaying a heavy hitter — Connelly's The Black Echo actually knocked out Chandler's The Big Sleep in the first round. And last round, Ellroy's L.A. Confidential took out Cain's Double Indemnity.
There is a connection between the two writers. A crime reporter at the L.A. Times at the time he wrote The Black Echo, his first novel, Connelly based his hero in part on Ellroy after reading about the murder of Ellroy's mother. Connelly told Mysterynet.com,
About the time I was putting this all together Ellroy's book The Black Dahlia came out, he got a lot of local press attention that revealed his past, especially that his mother was murdered when he was a boy. It was pretty obvious to me, obvious to everyone, that that is what he's about. What ever happened to his mother and so forth, he's working it out now by writing about murder. I thought that was very interesting, so I made the jump and instead of a writer working out his mother's murder by writing about it, I thought what about a detective who's solving murders and in some way that helps him deal with his own mother's murder? It's just hinted at in most of the books, and in the details it is quite different from Ellroy's life.
And so Connelly's detective, Harry Bosch, was inspired in part by Ellroy's life.
But even if there's a connection, there's simply no comparison. The Black Echo is a solid police procedural, the sort of genre fiction you could pick up in an airport and happily immerse yourself in for a flight to Chicago, even if you don't remember much of it later. L.A. Confidential is an opera — sometimes a messy opera, yes, and overwrought in the way operas are overwrought. It's exhausting. But it's the far superior book.
The difference, perhaps, might be in their inspiration. Connelly told Mysterynet.com that he took the job at the L.A. Times specifically because he knew Southern California was the center of all things noir. He came here to take notes, to learn, to breathe the same air as the masters of the art form. Throughout the book, he is every bit the meticulous reporter — one reason why The Black Echo is superior to many similar examples of genre fiction. (He's also a much more elegant writer.)
But even Connelly seems to realize his creation, Detective Harry Bosch, is more an archetype than a flesh-and-blood person. “Alcohol and jazz, he thought as he swallowed. Sleeping with your clothes on. You're a cliche cop, Bosch.” And so he is.
But while Connelly is the A student hitting all the required notes, Ellroy is the haunted genius. He didn't come here to study noir — he was born into it. His mother was murdered when he was 10. He later drowned his pain in drugs, alcohol, and sexual obsession. In L.A. Confidential, he's feverishly wrestling with those themes.
It's unfortunate for Ellroy, but lucky for us, that such demons are so hard to exorcise. Reading the ending of L.A. Confidential, you start to understand — some guys might get a happy ending, but others are positively compelled to just keep fighting.
The winner: L.A. Confidential
Previous matchups, from round one:
Rebels & Outcasts Region:
Lost Souls Region: