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Dark latency in L.A. Confidential

Everyone loves a princess
Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

the novel L.A. Confidential


Since Disney made the news cycle in the early weeks of May for its profit margin and its highest grossing animated film, it is a good time to cast a retrospective glance at James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, the third of four novels in the hard boiled jazz quartet series.

One way to score a major motion picture hit, as wise men like Ellroy know, is to deconstruct Hollywood feasting on itself. Since not everybody can be somebody all of the time, audiences seem to relish an actress going at it half cocked, or folksy personalities going against type as the reactionary usurper. Ellroy takes it a step farther in his graphic police procedural, (the diction is not for sensitive minds) engaging us in a gleeful deconstruction of the Walt Disney mythos, Disney himself fictionalized by Ellroy into the character of Raymond Dieterling.

Dieterling’s fantasy theme parks, his almost other-worldly megalomania, these frame the outlying scaffold of the convoluted plot. But the meat and potatoes of the action belongs to the three cops on the case. Bud White is the brawn; Ed Exley is the brain with his father’s juice to back it up; Jack Vincennes is darker, the flawed hero with an Achilles’ heel. Dudley Smith is also a police captain in the department, always in the mainframe of the action, advancing or impeding things along. A complex antagonist, Dudley saves Bud from what might have been a summary dismissal for an earlier assault on a senior officer. He also keeps his cards close to his chest.

Chapters 1 through 13 open with contract hits, jabs and punches, old ties and new associations fomented, but the heart of the action lies in a massacre at a coffee shop named the Night Owl, for which a group of black men are wrongly fingered and killed. This weighs on the conscience of each cop in different ways, all three realizing something is off: Jack, nagged by high end pornography, utilizes his tattle contacts; Ed, nagged by his father’s old cases, pursues the past, even while this has consequences for Inez, a Latino assault victim, and Lynn, a high end escort modeled on Veronica Lake.

Every secret gets more horrific than the last, leading back to the days of Dieterling’s past, the events that formed his ambition and claim to fame as an animator.

Americans have an obstinate belief in the might of their moral conviction, which is why Mickey Mouse, his cohorts, caught fire in the first place. We’re fascinated by a latency Ellroy exposes for what it is. A fairy tale.

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