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Literature / L.A. Confidential

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"A glory that costs everything and means nothing—"
Steve Erickson

A 1990 novel by James Ellroy, making up the third, and by far the longest installment of his LA Quartet series. Spanning nearly the entirety of the 1950s, this crime epic follows the investigations of three L.A.P.D. officers as they gradually unravel a dense, intricate web of criminal conspiracies, connecting murder to drugs to pornography to showbusiness to police corruption.

Bud White is a tenacious, brutal cop with a soft spot for women and a cruel streak toward woman-beaters. Jack Vincennes is an underachiever who coaches actors to play cops, haunted by a shooting from his past. Edmund Exley is a political climber and an idealist, desperate to escape his father's shadow as a legendary detective himself. The three of them, each following different cases, gradually uncover a sprawling conspiracy in the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles.

A film adaptation was released in 1997, though the sprawling novel was significantly condensed and altered. Two separate attempts at series followed, in 2003 and 2018, but neither pilot was picked up.

L.A. Confidential contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Armored Closet Gay: Exley blackmails District Attorney Ellis Loew into retiring with a photograph from Sid Hudgens' blackmail files, showing Loew with a male prostitute. Remarkable considering that Loew was a major political player in both 'The Black Dahlia' and 'The Big Nowhere', and throughout the bulk of 'Confidential' without so much as a hint at his sexuality up until this sudden reveal.
  • Ax-Crazy: The Frankenstein killer. Both of them.
  • Became Their Own Antithesis: Ed Exley undergoes this arc as he slowly turns from being a By The Book Hero Worshiper The Fettered Cop into being a Cowboy Cop and Manipulative Bastard halfway between Bud White and Dudley Smith. Ironically, it's because he does become utterly devoted to his belief in justice.
  • Been There, Shaped History: The case investigated by the lead detectives ends up directly involving real-life gangster Mickey Cohen and his enforcer Johnny Stompanato as supporting players.
    • Johnny Stompanato's infamous death at the hands of Lana Turner's teenage daughter even comes into play, eliminating him as the final known accomplice to the Nite Owl killings. It's strongly hinted that this killing was somehow set up by Dudley Smith.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Captain Dudley Smith, the new ringleader of various criminal dealings in Los Angeles since Mickey Cohen's absence, and the mastermind of the Nite Owl killings. Deuce Perkins, one of the real Nite Owl shooters, who's also a serial rapist and murderer hunted by Bud White. Raymond Dieterling, a showbusiness giant who covered up his illegitimate son's involvement in the serial murder of children. Preston Exley, a construction magnate and former cop who entered a conspiracy with Dieterling. David Mertens, the aforementioned illegitimate son and child killer. Pierce Patchett, a purveyor of drugs, pornography, prostitution and blackmail with connections to nearly every other major player in the novel's various conspiracies.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Once again, Ellroy's protagonists are barely more than a lesser evil compared to those around them.
    • Bud White is redeemable by his soft spot for women and his earnest hatred of abusers, but he's still a corrupt and brutal cop who cares more about taking care of his even more corrupt friends than actually upholding the law. He also turns himself into something of a Hypocrite when he beats Lynn Bracken.
    • Jack Vincennes killed two innocent civilians while intoxicated during a shootout, an incident which was suppressed, and his involvement in the main case is a result of him hunting down the blackmail file implicating him in this shooting. He essentially falls backwards into the Nite Owl investigation while trying to cover his own ass.
    • Edmund Exley is an idealist who genuinely wants to uphold "absolute justice", but he's also an ice-cold opportunist and a pragmatist. He earned a Distinguished Service Cross in the Pacific when he stumbled across a platoon of dead Japanese soldiers, shot up the corpses with a machine gun, and staged it to look like he had killed them single-handedly.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Jack Vincennes gets ignobly killed off midway through the third act by a shot to the face, JUST as he's started to redeem himself.
  • Body Horror: The Frankenstein killing that made Preston Exley's career. The killer abducted and murdered children, dismembered them, and put the body parts together to create his "ideal child". For the perfect face, he decapitated a child actor known as "Wee Willie Wennerholm".
  • Broken Pedestal: Ed Exley learns that his father Preston, a legendary cop, actually botched the "Doctor Frankenstein" case that made his name and let one of the killers escape justice, and later murdered an innocent boy he was misled to believe was the second killer. At the end of the novel, Exley proclaims that he will seek justice for his father's crimes. Preston commits suicide as a result.
    • Richard Stensland was already a Broken Pedestal for Bud White well before the events of the novel. White feels that he owes a debt to "Stens" for mentoring him as a rookie, and believes that he used to be an admirable police officer. However, despite his loyalty, even White recognizes that Stensland has gone off the rails with his drinking and general poor conduct.
    • Inez Soto, who grew up with Raymond Dieterling's cartoons, befriended him and Preston Exley after Edmund put her in touch with them. After she learns the extent of both men's crime and corruption, she joins them as the third member of an apparent suicide pact.
    • Played With in the case of Jack Vincennes and his much younger wife Karen. During their courtship, Jack woos Karen by playing up his charm and getting her to admire him as a heroic policeman, while keeping secret his general corruption and the two wrongful civilian deaths on his head. After a time skip, Karen has come to see through Jack's act on her own and recognized him for the flawed and corrupt individual he is, leaving their marriage seemingly on the outs. Near the end of the novel, a drugged and delirious Jack finally confesses to everything bad he's ever done, including the dead civilians, but Karen forgives him for all of it, seeming to appreciate his honesty.
  • Crazy-Prepared: In the prologue, the gunfight between Buzz Meeks and the posse sets the motel on fire. Dudley Smith calmly walks through the flames, wearing a fireman's greatcoat.
    Buzz: Dud, you came prepared.
    Dudley: Like the Boy Scouts, lad.
  • Downer Beginning: A corrupt cop loses a shootout with some other corrupt cops, and learns that the leader of the corrupt cops is a senior officer in the Los Angeles Police Department.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Unlike his film counterpart, who gets the slick nickname "Hollywood" Jack Vincennes, in the novel, Vincennes is largely referred to as "Trashcan," due to his literally shoving a perp into one.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Dudley Smith, naturally. Pierce Patchett as well, who presents a perfectly reasonable and friendly face while being open about some of his criminal exploits, but as more is revealed about him, the more disturbing he becomes.
  • Foil: Bud White is a Wife Basher Cowboy Cop who engages in regular Police Brutality. Jack Vincennes is a Glory Hound The Atoner who is full of self-loathing for the acts he did while on drugs. Ed Exley is a By-the-Book Cop who is The Fettered compared to his fellow police. All of them gradually become more like each other.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Jack Vincennes finally starts to redeem himself for his past as he works the Nite Owl case with Exley and White. Then he's shot in the face during a gunfight near the end of the novel, and that's that.
  • The Hero Dies: Buzz Meeks from The Big Nowhere and Jack Vincennes both die before the end of the book.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Bud White, who loathes and targets men who beat women, ends up beating Lynn Bracken after he finds out she slept with Exley. This happens in the film too, but his immediate My God, What Have I Done? reaction was exclusive to the adaptation. In the novel, Bud hits Lynn three times, and only stops "when he sees he won't break her".
  • Hidden Depths: Exley is stunned reading White's file on The Nite Owl killing — he had previously thought White nothing more than a brainless brute, but White's file shows genuine insight and comes incredibly close to figuring out the whole situation. Exley is a little condescending about it (he considers the file an example of a limited man striving against those limitations), but he's genuinely impressed.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Bud White, Lynn, and Inez Soto all believe that Exley is a moral coward hiding behind his daddy's money. Everyone who knows him is genuinely stunned that he is fully prepared to burn his entire career, family, and loved ones to the ground for absolute justice.
  • Karma Houdini: Dudley Smith, the corrupt and murderous police captain who escaped justice already in 'The Big Nowhere', pulls the same trick again, getting off scott free as the mastermind of the Nite Owl Killings after his accomplices are all killed. The novel ends with Ed Exley promising Bud White he'll bring Smith to justice.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Bud White and Edmund Exley simultaneously compete for the affections of both Lynn Bracken and Inez Soto.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Ed Exley has a long affair with Inez Soto, who he meets during an investigation. He never marries her, because it's the 1950s, and marrying a Mexican woman would hurt his police career.
  • The Mistress: Exley makes her this in the book and it feeds into her resentment of him as a lover.
  • Morality Pet: Vincennes' wife Karen serves as this to an extent, as he initially tries to maintain his best behavior around her. His relationship to Karen also serves to exacerbate his guilt over the two innocent civilians he killed.
    • Subverted by Inez Soto, rape victim of the Nite Owl suspects, who initially seems to serve this role for Bud White in particular. However, Inez is out for blood, and weaponizes both White and Exley's feelings for her to push one of them to kill her rapists. It's Exley who eventually does so.
  • Mr. Alt Disney: Raymond Dieterling, who is the creator of beloved children's cartoons starring a character named "Moochie Mouse", and plans to open an ambitious theme park.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished:
    • Russ Millard, a key supporting character in "The Black Dahlia," returns in this novel, and is largely aligned with Exley. Fearing for the safety of the Nite Owl Suspects, advises Exley he's got them stashed for safekeeping. They escape, and the aftermath causes him so much guilt and shame that he has a fatal heart attack.
    • Buzz Meeks attempts to strike at Dudley Smith and Mickey Cohen gets him killed in the opening chapter of the book.
  • Offing the Offspring: Raymond Dieterling covered up one of his sons' involvement in the Frankenstein murder by offering up another son, who he hated. He conspired with Preston Exley to murder the innocent boy, and later covered it up as a mountaineering accident.
  • Older Than They Look: Exley is described as looking 45 at the age of 36, owing to his long hours and stressful career.
  • Pet the Dog: Ruthless crime boss Mickey Cohen adopts a bulldog during his prison stint, which he names "Mickey Cohen, Jr." and smothers with affection. He does literally Kick the Dog later, but only after Mickey Jr. has passed away and been encased in a golden coffin, so it hardly counts.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: David Mertens, a.k.a. Douglas Borchard, a.k.a. Douglas Dieterling, the second Frankenstein killer. Suffering from a severe mental illness that seems to involve brain inflammation, Mertens descends into an incoherent, violent state if he misses his regular dosage of antipsychotic drugs. His father Raymond Dieterling has Mertens supervised by a "handler" who keeps him medicated so he can function, working a menial job on one of Dieterling's film sets.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Ed Exley at the end of the novel.
    Lynn: Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona. You're in with the former, but God, I don't envy the blood on your conscience.
  • Red Herring: Physical evidence leads White to identify Spade Cooley as the prostitute killer he's been tracking for years. Instead, the killer is revealed to be Cooley's bandmate and road manager, Deuce Perkins. The red herring is particularly enticing if the reader knows that in real life, Cooley went to prison for murdering his wife only a few years after the events of the novel.
  • Ret Irony: After confessing all of his sins to Karen, and being forgiven, and knowing that his career with the LAPD is basically at an end, Jack Vincennes joins Exley and White for One Last Job in an effort to take down Dudley. Karen leaves him a note telling him she knows the worst and doesn't care, and suggests a second honeymoon somewhere tropical, and also suggests that he can get a police chief job somewhere if he still wants to be in law enforcement. Jack is so giddy over the news that goes out on his job wearing a Hawaiian shirt to assist Exley and White. It is indeed one last job, as Jack gets randomly killed by a stray bullet in a gun battle. We later find out that Karen was so pissed over Jack's death and his treatment by the LAPD that she allowed no LAPD men to attend his funeral, and refused an audience with Exley.
  • Silver Spoon Troublemaker: One of the people responsible for a series of gruesome child murders and dismemberments is revealed to be the illegitimate son of Raymond Dieterling, an incredibly wealthy animation mogul.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Buzz Meeks, the last man standing from 'The Big Nowhere', is abruptly bumped off by Dudley Smith in the prologue chapter.
  • Suicide Pact: Preston Exley, Raymond Dieterling, and Inez Soto all overdose on antipsychotic drugs, in the middle of Dieterling's amusement park, once Exley and Dieterling's conspiracy connected to the Frankenstein murders is uncovered.
  • Sword over Head: Exley finally tracks down David Mertens, the Frankenstein killer responsible for numerous gruesome deaths including children, and has him at gunpoint. He finds Mertens to be a confused, incoherent mess of a human being, and spares him. He tosses Mertens his antipsychotic pills, and the killer gratefully takes his meds.
  • Working the Same Case: White spends years investigating the rape and murder of Kathy Janeway and several subsequent murders he believes fit the M.O. He eventually comes to suspect that the killer may be connected to the Nite Owl massacre, which has just been reopened and is being reinvestigated by Exley and Vincennes.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Frankenstein murderer, as well as a serial rapist/murderer who becomes a target of Bud White's personal manhunt after killing his fourteen-year-old witness.