re:View – The 2012 bookshelf V: Welcome to the dark side

Right, more bookshelf from last year. With Pratchett and the Bavarians done, let’s move on to some pretty dark (and seriously brilliant) stuff.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I dodged this one in school when it was on the final-year English reading list, and then my little brother dodged it in his final-year English class and passed his copy on to me. I’m glad I read it only now, almost ten years on from school. What a brilliant and painful book – those murders were haunting my nightmares for weeks. I don’t usually enjoy non-fiction much, but this one really changed my mind. As a journalist I was captivated watching the results of Capote’s meticulous (and obviously tireless) work evolve and constantly intrigued by the question of how much was fact and in how far he allowed his mind to fill the gaps. And I am in awe of the writer who can start by giving you the outcome of the story and then go on to build so much tension into it that, as you read it, your brain almost refuses to acknowledge you already know what’s going to happen.
Pens: 5 out of 5

By the way if you’ve ever wondered what became of the characters in the book, here’s a really moving interview feature portraying the later life of Bobby Rupp, the then-boyfriend of murdered teenager Nancy Clutter.

Dark, darker, noir: Introducing my new obsession

I don’t think I ever even ready so much as a real crime novel in my life. And then I watch a movie and end up knee deep in seriously dark crime stuff..

So I was watching L.A. Confidential the other day and kept thinking that somehow the movie didn’t make sense – as if there was a much bigger story behind it that had been chopped up for the adaptation. I didn’t know about James Ellroy at the time, but was little surprised when a quick search brought up L.A. Confidential, the book. And then the entire L.A. Quartet series. Being a bit weird about serial stuff, I had to start at the beginning, of course.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
So this is Ellroy’s version of the famous Black Dahlia case, and also the beginning of his chronicles of the Los Angeles Police Department, which start in the early 1940s and span almost two decades over the course of the four-volume L.A. Quartet. The novel is seriously gruesome and violent, but more than the horribly slaughtered and mutilated victims, it’s the story of the LAPD and its personnel that got to me. Caught between organised crime and a police force fraught with corruption, there are not many right choices a good policeman can make. Well, you know. Typical noir stuff. Just done extremely well.
Pens: 5 out of 5

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
So I thought Black Dahlia was pretty shocking. Well, in this one Ellroy really gets going with the violence. Throw in some sickening homophobia (it’s the 1940s…), some paranoid Red-baiting and a family history that will turn your stomach, and you have an even darker, more epic, more soul-wrecking part two in the L.A. Quarter. This book also greatly expands the background story of shady dealings in and around the LAPD and a feeling starts to creep up on of just how little choice you have as a guy with a conscience caught up in the middle of it. Which is exactly where Ellroy puts your mind: right in the middle of this whole messed-up world. And the more you read the harder it becomes to get out of it again.
Pens: 5 out of 5

LA Confidential by James Ellroy
Forget the movie. The movie is basically the primary school adaptation of the book. This story is so epic that you can only possibly do it justice by reading the book. Although probably the least physically violent in the series, this part derives its darkness from revealing, in a slow, creeping and utterly depressing way, just how deep the web of crimes and deceit reaches into an organisation built to protect people, and how little hope there is of ever winning against a corrupt system. Ellroy’s LAPD in the 1950s is an utterly devastating place – and yet its cast of incredibly complex crooks and doomed heroes give it a strange, underworldly glamour. Pure intrigue.
Pens: 5 out of 5

White Jazz by James Ellroy
After having good(ish) guys fight the evil system for the last three parts, Ellory still has another trick up his sleeve and thrusts a fist-rate criminal into the role of the doomed hero in the final part of the Quartet. The twist is, this cold-blooded, incestuous, slum-lording hit man is also a police officer in the LAPD, which adds a whole new perspective of the criminal element within the criminal organisation fighting the corrupt system in order to achieve his own corrupt goals. It’s wrong within wrong, turned upside down and then painted wrong all over. We have reached the end of the 1950s, and also the bottom of the pit of violence and hopelessness that is James Ellroy’s Los Angeles. There’s nowhere to go from here, except deeper into despair. Fade from gloomy darkness to pitch black.
Pens: 5 out of 5

To sum it up: I love this dark shit. I’m reading a 600+ page Ellroy-edited volume of noir short stories now, and lined up next is his Underworld USA trilogy starting with American Tabloid. And then I’m going to read my way backwards through the past century of noir literature.

So you can expect lots of cheery stuff here.

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