The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the midst of the Red Scare, a violated corpse with its eyes gouged out is found and young deputy detective Danny Upshaw catches the case. Meanwhile, Mal Considine is put in charge of rooting out communists in the UAES. Attached to his team are Dudley Smith, a veteran cop with a mean streak a mile wide, and Buzz Meeks, the dirtiest cop in town and the man whom his first wife had an affair with while he was fighting Germans in WWII...
Here we are, the second book in James Ellroy's multi-volume tale of wholesome family togetherness, the LA Quartet. Sarcasm aside, this was one brutal book.
It's hard to sum up a book with this kind of scope. In some ways, this book is the rise and fall of Danny Upshaw, the rise and fall of Mal Considine, and the redemption of Buzz Meeks, three very driven men. Upshaw will do anything to forget about his dark secret, burning the candle at both ends on two cases. Mal Considine needs a big win on the communist front to get custody of his son from his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Buzz Meeks tries to do the right thing despite a lifetime of doing the wrong ones.
In some ways, this book reads like The Black Dahlia 2.0. Ellroy has a few more balls in the air and more damaged men to put through the meat grinder. I knew the communist plot would dovetail with the death of Marty Goines and the others but I had no idea how.
As with the previous book, the characters make this a powerful read. Upshaw, Considine, and Meeks were all realistic and believable characters, much more nuanced than most crime fiction leads. Watching them go to their fates was like watching a car flying through a red light at an intersection, holding your breath and hoping nothing catastrophic happens. Meeks, who I dismissed as a disposable dirtbag at the beginning of the tale, wound up being my favorite character.
The communist plot didn't do a whole lot for me but the serial killer thread was balls to the wall. As the mystery rocketed toward the finish line, things got pretty tense and I thought about hiding out somewhere to finish it unbeknownst to my coworkers.
Ellroy's writing, the bleak offspring of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, makes 1950s Hollywood seem like a shit-smeared labyrinth built on lies and the bodies of the dead. Despair falls like rain and the case played demolition derby with the lives of everyone involved. By the end of the book, I felt like I spent a few days chained to a radiator and beaten with a pipe wrench.
While I feel spent after reading it, The Big Nowhere is one hell of great read, both as a thriller and as a work of literature. Five out of five stars.
After thought: In a parallel universe, I'm sure this is marketed as the inspiration behind season two of True Detective.
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