Monday, September 21, 2020

The Big Nowhere, by James Ellroy

With two books left to read in  the LA Quartet, after finishing The Black Dahlia and Big Nowhere I had to take a break.  They're excellent novels, but even I, someone who lives on a steady reading diet of bleak,  had to take a break before going on.  I didn't stay away for too long though -- these novels are like serious noir-reading crack.

It's 1950, and just three hours into the new year, acting watch commander Detective Deputy Sheriff Danny Upshaw ("a rookie squadroom dick") has already decided that the 1950s "were going to be a shit show."  He eventually becomes caught up in investigating a series of grisly, sexually-motivated murders, all the while fighting the territorial rivalry between the LAPD and the LASD as well as a department that doesn't want too much public attention called to these killings. Upshaw believes that solving this case will "make his name as a cop," but he has to make a deal to work as lead  jointly with both departments, bringing him into a team tasked with getting the goods on "lefties" associated with Communism in Los Angeles, specifically targeting the United Alliance of Extras and Stagehands. The task force  consists of  Lieutenant Mal Considine from the DA's Criminal Investigation Bureau and Turner "Buzz" Meeks, an ex- Narco division cop, now "Fixer, errand boy, hatchet wielder" for gangster Mickey Cohen and head of security at Hughes Aircraft, where his real work is as a "glorified pimp for Howard Hughes."   Lieutenant Dudley Smith of the LAPD is also attached to the team, serving along with Mal as a chief investigator.  The novel follows these two threads as they slowly intersect, moving outward into various connecting subplots while moving inward deep into the minds of the three main characters to reveal how, as the back-cover blurb notes, "All three men have purchased tickets to a nightmare."  

Once again Ellroy brings us into an LA that is based on a foundation of fact, allowing him to construct his fiction around reality.  It's genius, really, when you think about it.   But in trying to describe this book or the others, the truth is as Tom Nolan says in his introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of The LA Quartet,  "Thumbnail sketches do not suffice" (xii).    With The Big Nowhere there is no possible way to encapsulate Ellroy's characterizations,  for example, or the movement toward the intersection of the lives of the three main players who all have their own their personal demons to confront while all the while having to contend with forces from the outside.  Without giving anything away, it's so hard not to feel some measure of sympathy for each and everyone of the these three people, despite what they've done.    It is a book that you feel rather than simply read, and it's visceral. 

 The Big Nowhere is not perfect, but it is a hell of a ride.  Definitely not for the faint of heart.  It is  not a book I'd choose as an initial leap into noir;  it's bleaker than bleak, twisted, unbelievably intense and difficult to read,  but I have nothing but serious praise for this novel. 


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