James Ellroy's L. A. Confidential

No redemption in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential

More corrupted cops, conniving DAs, ruthless gangsters, psychopathic killers. Less truth and even less justice in the City of the Angels. Welcome to the world of James Ellroy. More setups, more cover-ups, more fall guys, more hush-hushes. Likeable characters? Not in this novel. Heroes and good guys? Sure, plenty in the news (besides here at Hush-Hush). Just don’t look in the closet or underneath the carpet. Redemption? Only if you’ve been living under a rock. This is La La Land, Hollywood Land, Dream-a-Dreamland.
The main event: Night Owl Shooting, 1824 Cherokee, 6 dead in food locker, gore, mutilations, blood two-feet deep. Spotted: purple ‘48-’50 Merc Coupe outside the shop. Make: three black young men discharging shotguns into the air in Griffith Park. Fall guys for a cover-up.

L.A. City Hall

Lieutenant Detective Ed Exley--ambitious, straight shooter, son of real estate magnate and former police detective--intends to solve the case, his meal ticket up the ladder to captain, then inspector. Eclipse his dead brother: competing with the dead, a sure loss, to seek his father’s approval, the great man who solved the famous Atherson case (hush-hush on the cover up). Never mind Ed faked his heroism during W.W.II to get a medal. Very hush-hush.

Officer Wendell (Bud) White--speaks with his fists, speaks with fists again before speaking with his mouth, watched his father beat his mother to death while chained to a bed, then watched her rot--intends to solve a string of prostitute killings: his obsession, his search for redemption. If only his brain could react before his fists do. Not in this novel, not in Ellroy’s world.

Sergeant Jack Vincennes aka Trashcan Jack--celebrity cop, self-interested, killed an innocent couple while on dope, but hush-hush--investigates the making and distribution of pornography. Sets up the D.A. for a scandal during a campaign so his friend wins the election, in exchange for favors. Feeds dirt to Hush-Hush for sin-sational news (thanks, Jack).


Likeable they aren’t, but colorful and struggling for their souls. And losing. In the end, they go to hell, literally or figuratively. You may want them redeemed, but remember, this is the world of James Ellroy.
All the slurs against blacks, Mexicans and gays, all the blood and gore for realism, they could be too much. Sure, James Ellroy was building a canvass: pornography, prostitution, heroine trafficking, police extortion, political corruption--a dark portrait of the City of Angels in the 50’s. But the excesses can be a turnoff.

What keeps the readers turning the pages? The plot, the plot, the plot. Multiple cases converge, involving the cast of criminals--cops, gangsters, production cast, psychopaths. Main plot and subplots interweave to form a tapestry of crime and sin and corruption and conspiracy. One of the most satisfying plots in a mystery/crime novel, complex enough to keep the reader from dosing.

James Ellroy (Photo: Mark Coggins)

Just too bad about not having a shootout between Ed Exley and Bud White. The quick and the dead. Would’ve been the pivotal scene.

Still, all the details that’s fit to print, in a fast-paced writing style, minimalism to the Nth order. Yes, style, style, style, either you love it or you hate it. Or you love it but hate it. But it fits well with the plot and theme.
And lad, even after Trashcan Jack kicks the bucket and Bud White becomes a cripple, your beloved Captain Dudley Smith is alive and well though he couldn’t become inspector. Containment. Contained. Wink, wink.

Remember, dear reader: you heard it here first, off-the-record, on the Q.T., and very Hush Hush.

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution

Thomas Kuhn, through the concept of paradigm shift, has demythologized science as an accumulation of knowledge through smooth progress. That, for Kuhn, is just normal science, the incremental progress within the limits, biases and assumptions of a paradigm. For him, a paradigm is a set of accepted practices within the scientific community, the scientific traditions the scientists have grown up with. For him, “The success of a paradigm… is at the start largely a promise of success discoverable in selected and still incomplete examples. And “Normal science consists in the actualization of that promise.”

Though Thomas Kuhn focused on the Copernican Revolution, for me the Quantum Revolution is a more poignant example of paradigm shift. And the latter, like the former, starts with inexplicable phenomena. When the traditional electromagnetic theory of Maxwell’s Equations couldn't explain black body radiation, Boltzmann and then Plank developed a set of equations with quantized energy levels to explain the phenomena. Later, Niels Bohr formulated the quantized levels of atoms to explain their discrete emissions.

Johannes Kepler                  Isaac Newton

As Kuhn says, “When, in the development of a natural science, an individual or group first produces a synthesis able to attract most of the next generation’s practitioners, the older schools gradually disappear.” In this case, Bohr persuaded his colleagues about the new view and pushed quantum mechanics into the forefront, securing it as the dominant theory in modern physics. But there were oppositions. Even Einstein, who proposed the quantization of light, could not accept the probabilistic nature of matter-energy as described by the Uncertainty Principle. For him, “God does not play dice.”

Max Planck                                 Niels Bohr                  

Albert Einstein

The shift from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics is a shift from a deterministic view of the universe to a probabilistic one, a change of beliefs and values. For Einstein and others, accepting quantum mechanics seemed like returning to the pre-scientific age, where a person, even a scientist, couldn’t quantify and analyze and predict natural events. When the way of doing science changes, so do the tools. Whereas calculus was the mathematical tool of Newtonian mechanics, statistics and transforms, Fourier or others, and the related group theories are those of quantum mechanics. And we know, even outside of science, that using different tools creates different results.

Erwin Schrodinger                Werner Heisenberg              Richard Feynman

For Kuhn, “Paradigms may be prior to, more binding, and more complete than any set of rules for research that could be unequivocally abstracted from them.” So the preferences toward a deterministic worldview and the corresponding tools predisposed scientists to solve those problems with a well-defined solution. Motion under gravitational and electromagnetic forces in the macroscopic world. On the other hand, the preference toward a probabilistic worldview and the corresponding tools predispose scientists to focus on the uncertain boundaries between matter and energy, space and time, position and momentum, and energy and time. And so, “one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions.” Following the Quantum Revolution, scientists developed quantum electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD) through normal science. But when string and other theories begin to emerge, scientists must again reevaluate their models and even more importantly their practices and worldviews.

                                                                 Thomas Kuhn

Through The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we begin to see scientific progress’s jagged path and appreciate the subjective parts of doing science. And instead of worshiping science, we take on the scientific mindset of observing phenomena and analyzing data and revealing biases and modifying models.

Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men

Choice and destiny at the crossroad?

When Moss comes upon a drug deal gone bad and takes the $2.4 million, he sets in motion a chain of events that neither he nor Sheriff Bell could stop. And the psychopathic killer Chigurh, who follows a universal code of conduct and tries to control every event, believes he is taking the only possible course: to eliminate Moss and retrieve the money. He gives Moss the choice to surrender and die or to fight and risk his wife’s life also. After Moss died, Chigurh arrives to kill his wife Carla Jean. When she persuades him not to kill her, he says he gave his word to Moss that he would kill her. He believes that killing her is the only “justice,” the only destiny for him and for Carla Jean. Except he allows her to pick heads or tails on a coin toss. She picks the wrong side and he kills her. The irony is that a drunk driver runs a red light and smashes the car into Chigurh’s truck and severely injures him. A random event. Neither he nor the driver planned it. Chigurh is one of the most eerie and enigmatic characters in fiction. He retrieves the money and returns it to the drug dealer, taking only a percentage as a fee. Because he believes he is “making things right.”

And Bell, a local sheriff used to helping old women get their cats off the trees, can only watch the events unfold, watch the shootouts in the motels and watch Chigurh kill Moss and then Carla Jean. He realizes the drug deals are beyond him and Chigurh is certainly beyond him and the land that he lives in is changing and he no longer understands it. He feels he is getting old and he quits and retires and spends his time with his wife.

McCarthy’s writing style empowers the novel and pushes No Country for Old Men beyond just a crime drama, a cop and robber story. The bare dialogues sustain the tension and push the plot forward. The barren sentences reflect the harsh Texas-Mexico border and the rugged and relentless characters and the bloody and grim scenes. To create an austere beauty that saddens yet mesmerizes the reader.

The world of No Country for Old Men, like the worlds of McCarthy’s other novels, is harsh and cruel and its inhabitants must struggle to survive, and when they fail they perish. No redemption through courage and heroism. Moss struggled and lost and he lost his life and his wife’s life. Bell retreated and he didn’t lose but didn’t win either. Choice and destiny?

No Country for Old Men is an essential American novel by an essential American writer. And despite the blood and gory, I recommend it as a reflection on our changing times.

James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere

Deputy Danny Upshaw investigates a brutal sex crime and hunts the gay middle-aged killer, not knowing that from the beginning he’s been led to implicate the wrong man. So he could lead the investigation, he agrees to infiltrate a labor union, search out communists and uncover their “un-American activities.” But all he cares about is to find out why a killer was mutilating other gay men.

Zoot Suits

Lieutenant Mal Considine, on the other hand, agrees to work with power-hungry prosecutors, corrupted cops and gangster union bosses and hunt communists only to get promoted and win custody of his adopted son. To work with mob boss Mickey Cohen, Considine enlists “Buzz” Meeks, a less than ethical cop, who only wants the money to retire with his mistress in a place far, far away. Together these men would dig out as much dirt from the communists as possible and help Cohen’s Teamsters replace the rival union in the studios.

LA City Hall

Corrupted cops, manipulative prosecutors, greedy union bosses, bloodthirsty cutthroats, delusional psychopaths, they populate The Big Nowhere, James Ellroy’s novel of greed, power and lust. Besides these colorful characters, the intrigue plot of manipulation and one-upmanship also powers the novel and leads the reader on a journey through the “dark night of the soul.” When we realize the witness was giving Upshaw clues to lead him down the wrong path… When we realize the horrible crimes committed… When we realize Meeks would never get away with stealing Cohen’s mistress… When we realize they’re all going to hell… Ellroy’s noir is not only a delicious crime novel, but also a poignant social commentary. Writing in the language of 1950, Ellroy portrays men and women racing toward hell and a society on the verge of exploding. We can only wonder how much filth a writer is able to expose. Powerful, gritty, and unforgettable. Prepare your stomach for it.

James Ellroy (Photo: Mark Coggins)

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Mystery Romance: The Shadow of the Wind

On a summer day in 1945, Daniel Sempere’s father took him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He chose a book called The Shadow of the Wind, which turned out to be the last copy. One night, when a faceless strange asked to buy that copy and he refused, he found out that it was the last copy of the book. And someone had been burning all the books by the same author, Julian Carax. As Daniel probed into the life of the author, he began to uncover secrets that should be kept in the dust of time. He discovered a conspiracy to bury the events of the past. He discovered the love affair between Carax and the beautiful Penelope. And he began to step deeper into danger as the evil Inspector Fumero sought to settle an old score…

The Shadow of the Wind is a historical mystery that takes us into post Civil War Barcelona, where the residents tried to return to a normal life. The intertwining events around Julian Carax draw us into love and lost and regret. Although there is a parallel between the Julian-Penelope and Daniel-Bea love affairs, the former outshone the latter as the sun that of a sparkle. And Fermín is as lovable as Fumero is detestable. A mystery as enjoyable as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.