Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Book to film, or not ... as the case may be

I’ve got a few interesting bits and bobs to chat about this week, including the title of my next novel, ONE EYE OPEN (out in August, with a cover reveal soon, I promise). But given that this publication is a few months off yet, I thought that today, which seems to be a bit of a lull in events, might be a suitable opportunity for me to talk a little about my film career to date (such as it is!), to add some meat to the bones of those occasional comments I make at conventions about movie projects of mine that never took off (some of which still may, of course).

On a not dissimilar subject, books-to-films, I also offer a belated review of James Ellroy’s astonishing and groundbreaking 1990 cop novel, LA CONFIDENTIAL, which of course became a massive hit movie seven years later. You may wonder why I’m reviewing that at this late stage. Well, I’ll answer all such questions down below … as usual, you’ll find the review at the lower end of today’s blog.

In the meantime, before we get to that, here’s an image to feast your eyes upon.

It seems I now have my own dedicated corner in The Brasshouse, that legendary pub in the very heart of Birmingham, bang next door to the Black Sabbath bridge. The two gentlemen pictured doing me this honour are Paulo Jacinto, the landlord, (on the left), and events organiser down in Brum, Mike Olley.

The background to his is that back in 2017, when SHADOWS, my second Lucy Clayburn novel, was published, I opened the action in The Brasshouse – yep, the very same place – and the owners were so happy when they read about this that they didn’t just invite me down to sample some ale and have a chat as a guest at one of their music festivals (not to mention pull a pint or two, as you can see here), but they have also now memorialised the book on the wall of the main bar.

I can’t thank the folk down at The Brasshouse enough for this great honour. It’s not something we authors tend to see a lot of, and so massive gratitude goes to Mike, Paulo and all the others.

And now (if you can forgive a really self-indulgent strap-header) …

Paul Finch – the movies

I’m aware that makes me sound as if I’ve got a track-record in film to equal John Milius’s. Well, not quite. Let me elaborate …

In my humble opinion, one of the most dispiriting things about writing – not just writing for a living, but any kind of writing – is the number of projects that never hit paydirt.

Now, what that does NOT mean is that I expect everything I write to rip across the sky like a meteor. Firstly, because not all of it is good enough for that. But also because – and this is a fact of life in the industry – even if our latest piece of work is the best thing we’ve ever done, there’ll still be an element of luck involved if it really ends up flying. On occasion, the most talented wordsmiths on the planet need to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, of all the writers I know, I bet there aren’t any who, even though they are fully aware of this, don’t occasionally bemoan those great ideas they’ve submitted as premises or treatments, or even as finished works, and yet which somehow or other, for reasons that should mystify the universe, have never caught the imagination of a single publisher or producer.

In my own personal experience, this has primarily been with movie projects. Not that I’m alone in that.

No author I know, even full-time novelists who have never attempted to write a screenplay, wouldn’t be excited to see their work adapted for the silver screen. And yet, despite the significant numbers of movies produced annually, so many of us can still tell stories about projects of ours that we privately thought would be sure-fire cinema hits and yet which, in the end, never even reached pre-production let alone principle photography.

I’ve now seen 12 of my novels published, alongside several collections of short stories. In addition, in my early days, I wrote TV scripts for The Bill and innumerable episodes of various children’s animation shows. And yet the world of film has proved dishearteningly elusive.

Now, I should add straight away that this hasn’t been the whole story. Two of my movie scripts HAVE been produced and DID hit the cinema. So, it’s not all abject misery. In which case you may wonder why I’m complaining. 

Well … I’m not really. I just thought it might be instructive, now that I’m on the runway to publication of my 13th novel, to point out that it’s not all been cakes and ale.

For those interested, the two success stories were SPIRIT TRAP (2005) and THE DEVIL’S ROCK (2011).

The former starred Billie Piper and Sam Troughton, and tells the tale of a bunch of students who take over a dilapidated London mansion where an old Russian spirit clock, long since defunct, is set in motion again, a whole series of supernatural events then following. 

My role was primarily that of script-doctor (in other words I had to rewrite a pre-existing script). The film wasn’t hugely successful, but it’s gathered something of a cult following in the years since its release, and it’s a regular on the Horror Channel, so I suppose it was a result of sorts.

The second of the two, THE DEVIL’S ROCK, is set on the Eve of D-Day and concerns two New Zealand commandos, whose mission to destroy a German gun emplacement on an outpost of the Channel Islands uncovers a plot to unleash a demonic force against the Allies.

This was a great experience, all-round. The script was mostly my own work, though I developed the story with director (and good friend of mine), PAUL CAMPION, who went on to do a sterling job behind the camera. On completion, it received a very positive response from critics and fans alike – the night of the premiere in Soho was one of my proudest moments – and if it hadn’t been for the constant pirating of the finished product, it would have gone on to make quite a bit of money and would have secured a sequel at the very least.

But that is where the good news ends. Because, as I say, none of my other film projects, thus far at least, have risen to those heady heights.

The first of these that’s worth talking about came way back at the end of the last century (crikey, that makes it sound longer ago than it actually was, though it still seems like a lifetime to me), and was a retelling of THE GOLEM.

At the time, Talisman Films, flush with confidence after the success of their Liam Neeson vehicle, Rob Roy, were really up for this one. You may recall that the Golem was a monstrous clay man, who, in the legend, was animated by rabbinical magic and put in defence of a Jewish community facing the terror of a pogrom. (The image here comes from the 1915 German horror film of the same name).

The initial plan had been to re-set the story during World War II, but after several development meetings, we decided this would be prohibitively expensive and perhaps not quite current enough given that the Balkan War was currently raging. So, we updated it and tweaked it, putting the Golem, the invincible guardian of the Jews (but a willing protector of ALL innocents), in defence of a Muslim town being terrorised by Serb guerrillas. We also threw some British and American spec-ops guys in to ensure we got the funding.

I only wrote two or three script versions of this before the producer and I settled on one that we really liked. And then, for reasons that completely elude me, but were probably financial, the project was shelved. Indefinitely. That was the first serious film script I’d ever written, and briefly it looked as if it was going well and that we were all headed for a stonking big success. But alas, it’s all long over. THE GOLEM – my version of it, at least – is not even in Development Hell anymore.

Following this, I wrote a speculative script, THE BELFRIES, (or BELFRY MEADOWS depending on which draft you saw) adapted from a short story of mine that was published in the 2004 horror anthology, Acquainted with the Night. No one had asked for it at that stage, but I wrote the script anyway, thinking that it would make a very cinematic ghost story. 

It concerns Stella, a young Manchester woman, newly married to the man of her dreams, Mike, who moves into a brand-new housing estate in the English West Country, where, because Mike is a director for the building firm, they get their pick of the posh new houses. The problem is that they are still the only residents on site and will remain so for several months. With Mike working away a lot of the time, what this actually means is that Stella will be the one alone, surrounded by rows of silent, empty new-builds. Inevitably, a haunting commences, which grows progressively more terrifying. Her investigation initially focusses on the legends and folklore of the West Country, but in actual fact the real evil is much closer to home.

I couldn’t get anyone to bite with this one, and yet I mention it here because only a year later, the story made such an impact on an Oscar-winning writer/director with Creative Artists in Hollywood that he optioned it on the condition he could adapt it himself. This would have involved him re-setting the story in California, but I had no issue with that (I’m nothing if not infinitely flexible if you want to make movies out of my books and stories!), but alas, though the option was renewed twice over several years, the film still wasn’t made.

While all this was going on, there was CAPE WRATH. This was originally my novella of 2001, which really started attracting attention when it was short-listed for the Bram Stoker Award in 2002. It follows a mission to a mist-begirt island in the Outer Hebrides, where a small group of archaeologists believe they have found the burial mound of infamous Viking, Ivar the Boneless. Needless to say, once they open the tomb, all manner of Norse-flavoured horror explodes out at them. 

This project was initially optioned by a young producer who I got on with like a house on fire, and who continued to renew it for – wait for this – the next seven years! I must have written 15 versions of the script in that time, before it gradually dawned on me that, no matter how often I ‘polished’ it, it simply wasn’t going to get made. At one point we were apparently a month from pre-production. But the month passed and, guess what … nothing happened. Sometimes the word ‘dispiriting’ doesn’t even come close to covering it.

However, this one may yet have a happy ending, because CAPE WRATH has recently been optioned again by a very workmanlike outfit headed up by a successful London-based writer/producer, so this one could still happen.

Another that has been ongoing for quite a few years now but is not yet dead is THE FREEZE.

This was an idea I initially sketched out as a possible novella, but in the end wrote as an on-spec screenplay. This would have been around 2010, I think, as it was likely inspired by the succession of extra-cold winters that we had in the UK around then (I remember -17 being recorded one Christmas Day lunchtime, which is pretty unusual even in Lancashire).

Anyway, the story concerns a bunch of delinquent girls on an outward-bound course of self discovery up in the Lake District, who find themselves marooned in their hostel by a terrible blizzard. At the same time, a prison transport carrying a group of Britain’s deadliest killers is en route to a new offshore supermax prison. Inevitably, the prison transport crashes, the murderers escape and in order to avoid freezing to death, they must try to force entry to the isolated hostel. The girls, meanwhile, if they want to survive, must somehow keep them out.

Now, this is another project, which though it’s been through umpteen changes and rewrites, and though all kinds of alternate storylines have been suggested, I still have high hopes for, mainly because the indefatigable Paul Campion is the film-maker currently most interested and he’s presently hawking it around production offices all over the Southern Hemisphere. Yet again, I don’t care if it’s set in the snowy wilds of New Zealand’s South Island if that means it gets made.

On the subject of the energetic Mr Campion, it’s also worth mentioning VOODOO DAWN.

This was another of those film projects that I derived from a short story of mine, though this one, it must be said, goes way back. Lore of the Jungle was written in 1993 and narrated by Dennis Waterman on a Telstar Audible horror anthology called Creatures of the Night.

It follows the misfortunes of a London gang, whose latest escapade leaves several people dead and arouses the ire of a bokor, or voodoo priest. The next thing the gang know, their hideout is under siege by the zombified remains of their victims.

In the script version, which I first wrote in the early 2000s, I set the gang’s hideout at the top of a derelict tower block in South London. The mind boggled at the potential this gave us for blood-drenched zombie action in the graffiti covered stairwells and lift shafts of a decayed urban high-rise, opening the door for all kinds of Reanimator-type gore effects. Paul Campion, being a special effects man to his bones, was hugely involved in this project’s development (check out his amazing concept art above), but yet again, though we rewrote it until we were absolutely delighted with it, and then touted it to a number of producers, and though several were very positive, none were able to raise the required money. And then, in the end, other circumstances kicked in. Attack the Block was made, along with the French zombie/gangster movie, The Horde. And then, as the slaughter-the-undead craze became overwhelming, we even had Cockneys vs Zombies. Personally, I consider VOODOO DAWN to be better than any of those, or even all of them rolled into one, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I!

THE DEAD ROOM – or DARK GROUND as it was later retitled – was another interesting project. This was already written in first draft form when it was brought to me by a well-regarded company who wanted to make a haunted house movie set in the UK, specifically on the Pembroke Coast. The draft I saw was very accomplished, but the producers wanted it updated along the lines specified by the director they’d hired. I went down to the director’s house in Cardiff for a couple of days and we worked through the script in various harbour-side bars, but again, in due course, the project fell by the wayside. I can’t quite remember why, but I know that this one was very disappointing as it had all seemed to be going so well and I’d made the critical mistake of actually expecting it to happen.

VODYANOI (or, for a brief time, DEEP BLACK) was the result of several meetings with a relatively new team who were keen to make a horror movie set in Russia but which didn’t denigrate the Russian people or their culture. I understood this concern. At the time, we had lots of movies like The Green Elephant, Mute Witness and Hostel, which implied that the social chaos in what had once been the Eastern Bloc had enabled the rise of Snuf film makers, torture-for-pleasure companies and, basically, insane levels of sadistic and deranged criminality. They didn’t want anything like that, so when I suggested we look at Slavonic mythology, they were very enthusiastic.

The story I came up with concerned an Anglo/Russian research team who travel to a remote lake in the Ural Mountains, where it has been discovered that natural pollution caused by metallic run-off from the encircling hills is creating monstrosities in the unexplored depths.

I was delighted with both the idea and my finished script, and felt that it came straight out of the Dr Who/Quatermass stable in that it combined sci-fi, folklore and eco-horror (plus it had finally given me a chance to indulge in one of my favourite things, which is underwater action) … but somehow, once again, it just didn’t happen.

This was an especially disenchanting episode for me, as it involved several hellish drives down from my home in Wigan to Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, at least twice during furious blizzards, for development meetings that went on for hours and seemed to lead nowhere. Of all those I’ve been involved with, I think this project was the worst experience in that I entertained such high hopes for it and put in an awful lot of effort – for absolutely zero gain.
HUNTING GROUND was another idea of mine that originated as a film premise rather than a book or story. In this one, a special forces unit sent to destroy a chemical weapons store in the Afghan mountains are immersed in an unknown agent but return home seemingly unharmed. Later however, while showing a bunch of journalists around their secret training base on a remote island, they begin manifesting homicidal tendencies. The base is shortly due to be decommissioned so there is no one else there to help the civies. I suppose you could have called this one a survival action/horror/thriller. Everyone who saw it seemed to really like it, but it took a bunch of young movie-makers, fresh out of film school, to actually option it. They wanted me to change the main protagonists from adult journalists to army cadets on a training course of their own, therefore aiming the film at a younger audience. I wasn’t initially keen but eventually saw how it could work. Alas, despite rewriting it to that effect, nothing came of it in the long-term.

We now come to what’s probably the last of the early projects of mine that almost got there. I’ve been working on HEART AND MIND for so long that I genuinely cannot remember when I first hatched the idea, though I suspect it was right back at the beginning of my freelance career, around 1998 or 1999. This was long before my Heck or Lucy Clayburn novels, but at the time I was writing scripts for The Bill, so I had my police/crime thriller head screwed on.

This one was originally set not long after the battle of Tora Bora (right), and sees an SAS soldier return home, traumatised, only to find that his mother has been shot dead during a botched robbery, for which the chief suspect is the nephew of a Manchester crime lord. When he hears from his ex-girlfriend, who’s now the DI investigating the case, that the nephew, though reviled by many in the underworld, will likely get away with it because they will always protect their own, he takes the law into his own hands, enacting a vengeance on the mob that literally rocks them where they stand.

I particularly liked this one as it turned the normal crime thriller situation on its head, seeing gangland itself horribly victimised, and the chief villain, Frank Kelman, an elderly Kray-like character, who was looking to get out of the crime game once and for all, now forcibly dragged back into it.

Once again, more producers than I can remember had solid sniffs around this one, but as before, the project – though it seemed to find favour wherever I took it – remains unclaimed at this stage, and all options have again expired. However, I still have hopes for it. The script has been written, rewritten, polished etc, and is now just waiting for someone with some development money to take a punt on it.

This brings us to the most recent film project of all, and one that is still doing the rounds.

WAR WOLF got achingly close to pre-production. It was an idea of mine loosely based on one of my fantasy novels, STRONGHOLD, though the average man in the street probably wouldn’t see much similarity between them now.

To give you a thumb-nail, the film script is set in central France during the Hundred Years War and pits a company of English knights, who have recently been the victors in some very bloody battles, against an army of vengeful werewolves. This one was optioned by a very serious London and LA-based outfit, the announcement of which even made the pages of Variety, and again, in the early stages, Paul Campion was attached to direct (here’s yet more of his amazing concept art).

Despite having all that quality on board, there’ve been lots of ups and downs in the development of this project and endless drafts have been written (not just by me, but also by my co-writer and good buddy, Andy Briggs), but the good news in this case is that it is still being talked about and considered, and could easily happen. Fingers crossed for this one.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by James Ellroy (1990)

Los Angeles in the early 1950s, where three cops are following very different routes in their efforts to rise through the ranks.

First off, Ed Exley, son of legendary ace-detective now turned top businessman and successful civic engineer, Preston Exley, is a one-time college boy and supposed war hero (though in truth, his wartime heroics are a fake, which only he knows about), who is determined to go far in this toughest of professions, primarily because he yearns to emulate if not improve upon his father’s achievements. Secondly, there is Wendel ‘Bud’ White, a pitiless hardcase who, thanks to a nightmarish childhood during which he was chained up by his psychotic father and made to watch his mother suffer a fatal beating with a tyre iron, has a particular bone to pick with every domestic bully he meets. Lastly, there is ‘Trashcan’ Jack ‘the Big V’ Vincennes, a superficially ultra-cool character, who works the narco desk, earns big bucks advising for the hit TV show, Badge of Honour, and busts celebrity drug-users after first setting up photo ops for scandal mag, Hush-Hush, with its scoop-hound in chief, Sid Hudgens, for which he is also very well-paid.

Clearly, none of this unethical threesome are shining examples of LA’s finest, and from the start they seem unlikely ever to be bedfellows when it comes to investigating crime. In fact, early on in the book there is active loathing between them.

Exley, who’s duty-officer at the division’s headquarters one booze-soaked Christmas Eve, when dozens of officers participate in the brutal and continuous beating of several Hispanic youths being held for assaulting a couple of patrolmen (a reflection of the real life ‘Bloody Christmas’ event in LA in 1951), regards it as his duty to report the incident. The chain-reaction this ignites sees Vincennes, who was only peripherally involved, transferred to Vice, and White, also an unwilling participant, severely censured, but more importantly, White’s partner, Dick Stensland, who was the main instigator, dismissed from the force and sent into a downward spiral of drunkenness and crime, which finally sees him executed in the gas chamber.   

The three men duly settle into new routines, hating each other from a distance, and time moves on, a sense of which we readers mainly glean from a torrent of official police reports and newspaper articles, including plenty from the ever irreverent Hush-Hush.

Vincennes and White wallow along at reduced pace, the former, now a drug-user himself, disgusted to be investigating such uninteresting villains as pimps and pornographers, the latter making a bit on the side by strong-arming gangsters under the affable but manipulative control of Captain Dudley Smith, whose secretive unit enjoys almost free license in its use of violence, blackmail and bribery. Exley, meanwhile, the only one whose chances of promotion have improved since the Bloody Christmas outrage, is still looking for the big case that will make his career.

Ed’s father, Preston Exley, though he made his real wealth building freeways and the gigantic amusement park, Dream-a-Dreamland (a thinly veiled Disneyland), became an overnight sensation as a cop when he captured a serial killer who didn’t just abduct and butcher children, including a popular child star of the 1930s, but who then stitched their severed parts together to create his very own Frankenstein monster. Ed, now a detective in his own right, has never had a case that even approaches this one, until the ‘Nite Owl Massacre’ occurs; what looks like an armed robbery at an overnight diner, which spins out of control and sees three members of staff and three customers shot dead. 

Dubbed the ‘Southland’s Crime of the Century’, Exley is determined that this will be the enquiry that defines his career, but as the demand for results from Chief William Parker grow louder and louder, he closes in too speedily on three black hoodlums who actually have a solid alibi: at the same time as the Nite Owl murders were happening, this sordid trio had abducted a young Latino woman, raped and beaten her and were then in the process of pimping her out to various of their lowlife friends. Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, Exley persuades himself that the threesome are guilty of the Nite Owl attack too and winds up gunning them down when they attempt to go on the run, even though he is armed at the time and they aren’t.

What follows from this shocking miscarriage of ‘absolute justice’ is a bewildering explosion of plot and counter-plot, each more complex and brutal than the last, all cross-cutting each other and played out at breakneck pace, involving yet more serial murders (recent ones as well as the older ones), gangland hit after gangland hit, mutilation of prostitutes, the distribution of progressively weirder and more gruesome pornography, heroin trafficking (in rivers), racketeering and conspiracy among public officials, senior cops behaving like mob bosses, junior cops acting like crazy gunmen (even our three police antiheroes, who repeatedly fail to step up and do the right thing), the whole narrative finally descending into a maelstrom of violence and corruption in the perfectly inappropriately named City of the Angels, which in this book is more like Pandemonium itself.

Somehow or other, Exley, White and Vincennes are going to get to the incredible truth behind the Nite Owl slaughter, and sundry other horrific crimes, but they’ll literally play Hell getting it done, and will then find themselves confronting a cadre of deadly villains who are surely among the most evil ever committed to paper. Well before the end, the chances that all three of them will make it through seem remarkably slim …

What can you say about a novel like LA Confidential, which is so well-known already and so widely revered that it makes any kind of review in 2020 incidental?

I hesitated to put pen to paper regarding this because all I could think was that no one would care about my view. The book has already sold millions of copies, it was made into a massively successful Hollywood movie some 22 years ago, it is volume three in the hugely influential LA Quartet series, which, again, the vast majority of the reading public already knows about. There’s no obvious reason why I should have my say so late in the day, but you know, when you finally get around to reading a book like this, you just have to comment.

And after that intro, I imagine you’ll expect me to be controversial. Well … not as controversial as the novel itself, put it that way.

First, I suppose I should discuss the aspects of LA Confidential that are likely to cause ‘issues’ for people. To start with, it’s not woke. And that’s a serious understatement.

The book was written in 1990, which though that is relatively recent in terms of Noir, was still long before authors were expected to show any real degree of racial or gender sensitivity. On top of that, it’s set in the 1950s, when machismo was the order of things in male society, women were viewed either as ornaments or homemakers (or both), and ethnic minorities were openly considered to be second-class citizens.

And then there is the author factor.

James Ellroy is famous for his cynical and subversive public persona, and while there is doubt as to how much of that is genuine, it’s certain that he could not have set out to write a book like LA Confidential without willfully seeking to stun his audience, without purposely reinventing Los Angeles as a vile underbelly peopled by deviants of every sort – pimps, hookers, hopheads, high-level criminals, bent officials and cops themselves who are little more than drunken, corrupt brutes – without consciously seeking to offend almost every corner of society.

There is almost no one in this book – white, black, Hispanic, straight, gay etc – that you can actually sympathise with, no one who doesn’t deserve the many slurs and insults that would cause uproar in any novel published today but which are thrown about like confetti in this one. And quite often, this decidedly tough language doesn’t just occur in the dialogue. The author himself is equally guilty, frequently dropping the N and Q words, and yet somehow, in mysterious Tarantino fashion, getting a free pass from the critics. Is LA Confidential such unimpeachable art that this can be tolerated? Well, no I wouldn’t say so. But then I wouldn’t say that about Tarantino’s movies either. But things are as they are. No one seems to mind.

On top of the juicy language here, there is a whole ream of social and criminal horror for the average reader to digest. As I say, almost no one is redeemable in LA Confidential. From arch real-life gangsters and former Bugsy Siegel sidekicks, Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato, right down to verminous tabloid scumbag, Sid Hudgens, everyone in this book is ruthless, deceitful and treacherous. They’ve all got an angle, they’ve all got their own interests at heart, they all do each other down with a narcissistic glee that owes nothing to necessity. And in many cases, they all have hideous secrets. For example, musician Burt ‘Deuce’ Perkins did time on a chain gang for ‘unnatural acts against dogs’! Ray Dieterling, cartoon animator turned movie millionaire (Walt Disney, anyone?), had his own son murdered!

Even our three heroes – Exley, White and Vincennes – are so deeply flawed that in normal circumstances you’d expect to view them as villains. Exley is the best of the bunch, except that he lives a lie where his war record is concerned, and is obsessively, ruthlessly ambitious, a personal weakness that actually starts to make a physical impression on him. The fact that he killed the wrong people after the Nite Owl Massacre bothers him a little, but it doesn’t on its own ruin his life.

Jack Vincennes also regrets shooting innocent people, but his response is to keep self-medicating with ever heavier narcotics, even though he’ll still happily bust pushers and users, all the time fantasising about his beautiful girlfriend, Karen, getting down and dirty in full-on porn movie orgies.

Bud White also has a girlfriend that he doesn’t really deserve, in Lyn Bracken, a former prostitute from a high-class stable, where all the girls were surgically modified to look like film stars, in her case Veronica Lake. She sees something in the apelike White, though Heaven knows what, especially as his innate loathing of wife-batterers doesn’t prevent him beating her when he learns that she’s been unfaithful.

Then we have the actual horror with which this book is deeply layered.

As I’ve already intimated, James Ellroy’s LA is a nightmarish netherworld, liberally strewn with horrific murders, gang rapes and ghastly dismemberments. Most of the victims, male or female, adult or child, are killed in the most barbarous ways imaginable. Sid Hudgens for example is hacked apart while he is still alive, while others are tortured to death with caustic chemicals, including acid. In a way, of course, this emboldens the reader to keep going, because it makes him/her realise that as bad as Exley, White and Vincennes are, there are always worst beasts lurking just beyond the next page, and that maybe only a bunch of human wolves like these will be able to take them down.

But seriously, be prepared for the gruesomeness of this book. The scene of the Nite Owl Massacre is described as though it’s an abattoir, the condition of the Frankenstein killer’s prepubescent victims, when finally discovered by Preston Exley, has to be read to be believed. In another staggeringly violent moment, Bud White shoves a suspect’s hand down a garbage disposal, churning it to mush … and remember, White is supposed to be one of the good guys.

The final brickbat, if it is such a thing (and this is entirely subjective), is the manner in which the novel is written.

According to the stories, when James Ellroy delivered the first draft of LA Confidential to his publishers, it clocked in at 900,000 words. Even in the States, they balked at publishing something so enormous. The author was ordered to cut it back significantly, which he didn’t consider possible unless he literally stripped out half of almost every sentence he’d written, glueing many of the remnants back together in what almost looks like haphazard fashion. The result is a literary style that at first read is so startling you really don’t think you’re going to get used to it. This chunk of text, for example, comes from the very first page of Chapter One:

Bud White in an unmarked, watching the ‘1951’ on the City Hall Christmas tree blink. The back seat was packed with liquor for the station party; he’d scrounged merchants all day, avoiding Parker’s dictate: married men had the 24th and Christmas off, all duty rosters were bachelors only; the Central detective squad was despatched to round up vagrants: the chief wanted local stumblebums chilled so they wouldn’t crash Mayor Bowron’s lawn party for underprivileged kids and scarf all the cookies …

It’s a similar story all the way through. It’s almost as though you’re reading a genuine cop’s abbreviated notes. It’s more like a stream of consciousness than actual literature.

Bud packed up, got out, brainstormed some more – pimp war clicks, clickouts – Duke Cathcart had two skags in his stable, no stomach for pushing a 14-year-old nymphet – he was a pimp disaster area. He tried to click Duke’s pad tossed to the Nite Owl – no gears meshed, odds on the (blacks) remained high. If the tossing played, tie it to Cathcart’s ‘new’ gig – Feather Royko talked it up – she came off clean as Sinful Cindy came off hinky . . .

However, I urge you all to stick with it. My initial reaction was negative, but within a page I’d adjusted. Not only that, it had taken nothing away from the epic sweep of the story, or any of the author’s multiple overlaying subplots.

And yes, as you’ve probably guessed, we’re now onto the positives about LA Confidential, which are frankly overwhelming.

If you can make the mental leap into the world of exaggerated darkness that this novel occupies, few of the negatives I’ve already mentioned will bother you. Because, taken as a whole, this really is one of the greatest Noir novels ever written. Yes, it’s appallingly brutal and rude and crass, but it works so damn well. It’s trio of antiheroes appeal for the simple reason that, though a disgrace to their profession, they are much the lesser of various competing evils. Certainly, their many opponents, both criminals and cops, are among the most dangerous I’ve encountered on the written page. The pace and jeopardy never relent, even though the narrative straddles the best part of a decade. And for all the punchiness of the prose, it is full of the most remarkable and yet disturbing imagery: two buddies getting uproariously drunk together in the death cell on the night before one of them is executed; a stable of high-class call girls, already beautiful but expensively re-cut into movie goddess lookalikes; a serial killer so deranged that he turns his child victims into mismatched puppets.

Of course, it’s not just a horror story or a fast-moving crime caper. James Ellroy is nothing if not a serious writer. On one hand he might like to shock, but on the other he likes to inform, and his main interest in LA Confidential, it rapidly becomes clear, is his detailed examination of three damaged souls who eventually manage to rise above the rampant lawlessness of their lives even though it ultimately demands astonishing sacrifices of them.

Not that this is a tale of redemption or salvation. No one gets forgiven here, or excused – but they may, possibly, escape. Which is surely the most that any of them can expect. But however unlikely that may seem, it’s all carried through at speed and with panache by the author, and it’s completely believably done. This book is a multifaceted deluge of ideas, a perplexing number of threads dangling as we reach the final quarter, but Ellroy ties them all up smoothly and neatly in the closing pages, leaving no questions unanswered.

You may have realised it by now, but you can’t just watch the 1997 movie version of LA Confidential and claim that you’re au fait with this most fulsome chapter in Ellroy’s LA story. However you regard the movie, it condenses only a handful of threads from the novel, and not even, in my view, the most important ones. It roughly tells the same tale but in a very quick, accessible and clean-cut way, which doesn’t even share the same atmosphere. I like the movie, incidentally, but will state for the record that, even though I saw it first, it did not spoil my reading of the novel, and nor will it for you. So, even if you’ve only seen the film, I urge you to read the book as well; it’s easily one of the most challenging and yet exhilarating police thrillers on the market. It’s a true epic and a cop classic.

You will NOT be disappointed.

Everything I’ve just said about the movie version notwithstanding, it’s a fine viewing experience in its own right, and it’s probably close enough to the original in terms of its main characters to render one of my customary casting sessions pointless. I could certainly never improve on the actors they signed up back in 1997. So, on this occasion, I won’t bother trying.

(The images of the clapperboard, the scary lake, the eerie figure in the snowy wood and the battle of Tora Bora were freely lifted from the internet, where I found them floating around with no author names attached. As always I'll be delighted to attach credits, or even remove these images if the originators would like to make themselves known).


  1. Totally agree on James Ellroy, I always get a headache after reading his bludgeoning machine style or writing. One of the few I haven't read is in fact LA Confidential. And coincidentally am just about finished The Black Dahlia. It's much gentler on the reader, possibly as its his first novel...

  2. Black Dahlia due up next for me.

    1. It's so much easier on the reader, but has the beginnings of Ellroys unique style. And it's a fantastic story.