Thursday, February 9, 2023

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy

Thirty-five years after it hit bookstores, James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere still has the power to thrill and nauseate. So much so that a reader might ask: “What is wrong with this guy?”

All joking aside, Ellroy is a hell of a writer. He mixes a deep knowledge of mid-20th century Los Angeles with an obsession for the crimes and misdemeanors of the old police department. He creates a world based in reality with situations straight out of his own nightmares.

Set in the LA of 1950, The Big Nowhere starts as two parallel stories with three key characters. The characters come together to solve one of the most gruesome and disgusting crimes in fiction.

In the small hours of New Year’s Day, the body of a murdered and mutilated man is found near the Sunset Strip. Detective Danny Upshaw of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department catches the case. Since the body is discovered outside the municipal limits of LA, the case is in the county sheriff’s jurisdiction.

Upshaw discovers the crime was initiated in the city, which is a problem for a sheriff’s deputy. There is outright hatred between officers of the LAPD and officers of the LASD. The city cops, the records department and even the morgue will not cooperate with him.

But this changes due to the other story line.

In the city, an ambitious lawyer in the LA district attorney’s office forms a task force to look into Communist influence in the movie industry.

The lawyer, Ellis Loew, is looking to boost his own political standing. He appoints LAPD Detective Lt. Mal Considine to investigate Hollywood Reds. Considine, who hopes this work will get him promoted to captain, is disappointed to learn he has to work with former dirty cop, Turner “Buzz” Meeks. Loew, knowing the team has to take some short cuts, brings in Meeks. He also appoints the smart, politically savvy, and deeply corrupt Lt. Dudley Smith to work with Considine.

Smith is a fascinating character who appears in several Ellroy novels. The character has the uncanny ability to find weaknesses in other men and to use that knowledge to get what he wants.

In a strange move, Upshaw of the LASD is recruited into the Red-baiting team of LAPD investigators. Seeing his own opportunity for advancement, Upshaw agrees to join, and works the two cases at the same time.

It doesn’t take long for Upshaw to learn that suspects and witnesses in his murder case are also targets of the investigative team.

Ellroy has made a career of telling jaw-dropping stories of the good-old, bad-old days in the City of Angels. He uses the setting to crank out high-octane novels, like this one, told in the voice of a street-smart guy of that era.

The Big Nowhere is not for weak stomachs. The violence and gruesomeness are almost as hair-raising as Ellroy’s use of nearly every racial slur.

The Big Nowhere is Ellroy’s second book in his LA Quartet with includes The Black Dahlia, LA Confidential, and White Jazz.