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The Big Nowhere: A Novel by James Ellroy: (A Book Review)

Updated on December 13, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.



Crime Novel: This is a novel in which a crime (usually murder) is committed by someone who is immediately known to us, the readers. The question is not 'whodunit,' but rather WHY did she do 'it' and how will she or will she not get away with it.

Mystery Novel: This is a novel in which a major crime (usually murder) is committed but the perpetrator is withheld from us, the readers, until the very end of the story. It is a puzzle.

Police Procedural: This is a mystery novel or story---with all of those characteristics---which features official law enforcement as the entity who solves the crime and brings the guilty party (whoever it turns out to be) to justice. We are given a glimpse of the process or official 'procedures' of criminal detection and apprehension.

What is a James Ellroy novel?

If you take the television show Criminal Minds (the show about the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, which tracks down the most vicious, meticulous, and elaborately-planning serial killers) and mush it together with another television show---now off the air, I believe except in syndication?---The Shield (starring Michael Chiklis) about a group of corrupt Los Angeles plain clothes police officers---and convert the combination into book form, as well as set the whole thing in 1950s/early-1960s Los Angeles, and think about what that means, then you begin to get a fair idea of what a James Ellroy novel is all about.

Hint: The postwar Los Angeles that Mr. Ellroy depicts is not the Joe Friday, clean-cut, crew-cut, 'just the facts, mam,' by-the-book, Los Angeles of Dragnet. We are talking about what one might politely call the seamier side of Hollywood.

What is a James Ellroy novel?

A James Ellroy novel is a crime novel, mystery novel, and police procedural all rolled up in one.

Note: In my reviews I usually say that a novel is one thing or another, a crime novel or a mystery novel. I don't usually claim that any novel is a combination of both. But a James Ellroy novel fits that bill. Both dynamics are present in his books. On the one hand we are presented with, in this police procedural format, a real mystery, a 'whodunnit.' There is a multiple murderer to be identified---a quite savage one, typically. But there is also the 'crime' dynamic going on. That is to say that the protagonist himself, has committed, or is in the process of committing serious crimes. There tends to be some suspense as to whether or not he will get away with his crimes.

What links the two aspects of a James Ellroy novel, both the crime and mystery elements is usually the novel's protagonist, or 'hero,' if you like. You see, the hero-protagonist is usually a seriously corrupt police officer, who 'lost his way,' so to speak, 'long ago,' and so forth. His redemption comes from the fact that: 1) Out of all the bad guys in a James Ellroy novel, our hero-protagonist is always the least-bad; 2) Our hero-protagonist is the guy who solves the string of horrific, multilation, 'Criminal Minds'-type; and 3) As bad as our hero-protagonist is (and he is BAD), his saving grace is that he has a moral floor beneath which he will not sink; and this makes him better than most of the story's actors arrayed around him.

What is a James Ellroy novel?

With its feeling of time and place authenticity, a James Ellroy novel feels to me, like I'm viewing a piece of film noir in my head. In other words, what I'm trying to say is that, to me, a James Ellroy novel always makes me feel like I'm watching a film noir-type movie in my mind, as I read the book.

This begs the question: What is film noir?

Film noir are movies that were originally put out in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They are, of course, in black-and-white; and they are crime thrillers. Examples: The Maltese Falcon (Humphrey Bogart), Double Indemnity (Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck), The Killers (Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner), The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dial 'M' for Murder (Ray Milland and Grace Kelly), and so forth. They place ordinary people in situations of desperation.

Anyway, a James Ellroy novel is quintissential tough guy fiction: testosterone all over the place, ultra-masculine, gritty, hardboiled, lean, terse prose that cuts through you like a bullet train. The novels are relatively lengthy but fast-paced.

What is a James Ellroy novel?

A James Ellroy novel is a crime thriller, mystery, and police procedural, cross between Criminal Minds and The Shield in book form, set in 1950s/early-1960s Los Angeles that is densely plotted.

Question: What does that mean? What do I mean when I say that a typical James Ellroy novel is densely plotted?

Answer: This is something you will need to prepare yourself for, should you decide to read a James Ellroy novel. What I mean by that is that every Ellroy novel features a long parade of characters, both minor and major.

So, what exactly do I mean when I say that a typical James Ellroy novel is densely plotted?

1) First of all, I mean that, in a James Ellroy novel a lot of stuff happens, stories within stories(subplots)---lots of them!

2) I mean that when you read a James Ellroy novel, when you get a good way into it, and when you finish it, you will say to yourself something like: "Whew! There sure was a lot of stuff going on in there."

3) I mean that a James Ellroy novel is a book of multiples upon multiples of character connections. What I mean by that is that just about every other person one meets in a James Ellroy novel (whether as a witness or law enforcement colleague or gangster/hood and the like) tells 'his story,' which involves others---and they themselves have stories to tell, sometimes in connection with the people who told stories about them; and then we're introduced, either directly or by reference, to yet other people who have stories about the people we met prior, who told stories about them and on and on and on... Its kind of like endlessly peeling an onion.

4) I mean that in a James Ellroy novel, compared to most other novels by other writers, one comes away with the conviction that more stuff happens, per pound---and is referred to as having happened---than in any other novel its length. Do you follow me?

5) But I think the dense plotting is a good thing. It goes some distance in reflecting the true complexity of life, and the true its-a-small-world interconnectedness of everybody with everybody else. It also precludes the possibility of some detection savant coming on the scene, snapping his fingers, and doing some kind of figuring trick and almost miraculously coming up with the solution---not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm as big a fan of Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, Matlock, Perry Mason, and Murder, She Wrote as anyone.

What is a James Ellroy novel?

If you have never encountered a James Ellroy novel, or any fiction like it (i.e. Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, and the like), then the way he uses prose may---I say 'may'---come as a surprise to you.

What is James Ellroy's prose style?

1. His prose style, above all, is a living, breathing affirmation of the principle that: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Since his books are relatively lengthy, you will appreciate this---I know I certainly do!

2. What I mean to say is that Mr. Ellroy's prose style is almost completely without ornamentation, frivolous, superfluous decoration, which, I must say, is entirely appropriate to the kind of fiction he writes.

3. His prose keeps the adjectives and adverbs to a bare minimum. Note: I think this is really important. To my way of thinking, when we look at a piece of fiction writing in which an excess of adverbs and adjectives are used, we are looking at the work of an author whom we have caught trying to hard to persuade himself (and hopefully that persuasion will spill over onto us, the readers) that what he has written is: scary, thrilling, suspenseful, or whatever it is supposed to be----instead of letting the story stand on its own to do the work. Do you follow me? Think of a person talking to you, trying to persuade you that such and such is a 'great business deal to get into,' and so forth. Whatever the case may be, we can tell when someone is 'trying too hard,' so that we wonder whom it is he is trying to convince, us or himself. The bottom line is that we don't want to read fiction prose that seems as though the author is trying to convince himself that the work evokes the kind of effects that it is supposed to evoke. Let's move on.

4. After all that I have said, you should not assume, however, that Mr. Ellroy is not a prose stylist. He is, and that is one of the things that makes his books so readable, even compulsively readable.

What is a James Ellroy novel?

If you have never read a James Ellroy novel, let me tell you this, so that you can prepare yourself. When you take up a James Ellroy novel, be prepared to pass through a kind of macabre museum of sexual deviant psychotics (I'm not talking about homosexuals, of course, though you should be aware that the time period in which Ellroy's novels are set does indeed treat homosexuals as sexual deviants, perhaps psychotic). What I'm talking about is reference to B&E panty-sniffers, B&E guys, who, for some reason feel the need to relieve themselves in washing machines, guys who are purported to have sex with dogs, horses, and so forth(bestiality), and the like.

Just understand that a James Ellroy novel is intense, full of sex and violence. The sex is both the twisted and relatively standard, nurturing kind. Anything you can think of is dealt with in a James Ellroy novel.

What is a James Ellroy novel?

A James Ellroy novel is a book of treacherous atmosphere, in which redemption is a commodity worth more than gold; and no one is more badly in need of it, usually, than the main character, the corrupt/on-the-take cop investigating what usually turns out to be a string of horrific, "Criminal Minds"-type murders.

What is a James Ellroy novel?

A James Ellroy novel, which is a combination crime, mystery, police procedural, which is the book version of the combination of "The Shield" and "Criminal Minds," is frequently something that has the tendency to, sort of, morph into a private detective-type novel.

What is a private detective novel?

A private detective novel is a mystery novel in which the main entity who solves the story's major crime(s) is a civilian, either a titular private investigator or some other non-member of official law enforcement---Diagnosis Murder is an example of this kind of mystery fiction; yes, official law enforcement is involved, in a bumbling way, but the real detection is carried out by the medical doctor played by Dick van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloane. The Maltese Falcon is another example of private detective fiction; its all about lone private 'eye,' Sam Spade, doing his thing and solving the crimes, again, with official law enforcement in the background as a tangential, bumbling presence.

What frequently happens in a James Ellroy novel, then, is that the protagonist-hero, a representative of official law enforcement comes to a point in the story where he finds himself alienated from the department as a whole, and has to essentially pursue the investigation on his own. This happens because Ellroy's protagonist-heroes, though they are corrupt police officers, nevertheless have held onto more of their humanity than everybody else around them; and this includes most of his official law enforcement colleagues.

He tends to put in the effort, trying to find justice for victims of these horrific, mutilation, "Criminal Minds"-type murders, whom 'nobody cares about,' and so forth. Our protagonist-hero, as jaded as he may be, still retains a sense of justice, a sense that some offenses are simply 'beyond the pale,' that people who not only kill but horrifically butcher people need to be in a cage; in other words, there is a moral floor beneath which even he will not sink.

The typical Ellroy protagonist-hero contrasts dramatically with the character of Lt. Dudley Liam Smith of Homicide. Smith is one of Ellroy's recurring characters, of which there are several. Lt. Dudley Liam Smith is James Ellroy's most provocative and sinister character. Smith is not so much about 'solving' crimes, as much as managing, controlling, and containing crime. They guy has to be experienced to be believed---something seems to have happened to his soul a long time ago; and one of the reasons I keep reading Mr. Ellroy's novels is to, hopefully, eventually find out what that was.

What is The Big Nowhere?

The Big Nowhere is everything I said of a typical James Ellroy novel.

How about the plot?

The setting is 1950 Los Angeles. Our story follows two tracks: 1) LA County Sheriff's Department detective Danny Upshaw investigates a string of horrible, homosexually-oriented, mutilation murders. Note: Detective Upshaw is NOT a corrupt cop. He is something of a 'boyscout,' actually. He is smart, hard-charging, ambitious, honest, and relentless. Nevertheless, he does have a secret---a very big secret.

As you read this book, you will see why Danny Upshaw doesn't get along with most other policemen; he can be impatient and abrasive. But as you go along, you will identify with him, you will root for him; and you will be shocked at what happens to him about three-fourths of the way through the book. Hint: The shocking thing has something to do with his big secret.

The other track of the story concerns the anti-Communism fever that swept America during those years. Mal Considine (D.A.'s office senior investigator), Buzz Meeks (former police officer and current 'bagman' for mobster Mickey Cohen, and pimp/procurer/fixer for Howard Hughes), and Homicide Lt. Dudley Liam Smith form a team overseen by the District Attorney Ellis Loew. They are investigating supposed Communist infiltration of the screen actors guild(the studios would rather scream RED rather than simply pay decent wages...).

But the investigation looks primed to be a real career-maker for Mal Considine and Danny Upshaw, who had been drafted to the unit. So, young Detective Upshaw is helping ferret out Communist influence from Hollywood in addition to his duties concerning the multiple homosexual mutilation murders. Buzz Meeks is on the team for the money; he owes a lot of money to his bookie.

But Buzz Meeks finds redemption. When the shocking thing I referenced, happened to Upshaw, it is Meeks who took over the investigation of the multiple, homosexual mutilation killings and finds the solution. I don't want to give too much away.

One last thing I'll say about this book is that it features music. Sort of. Jazz music. But before you get too excited those of you who 'dig' jazz, the author makes it perfectly clear that we are dealing with second-and third-rate jazz musicians making second-and third-rate jazz music. The angle is this: During their sessions, one set the drummer might be missing; he's off burglarizing a house. One set the drummer is back but the bass man is missing; the bass man is off robbing this time. The next set the bass man is back but now the piano man is missing because its his turn to do some B&E.

Cute angle, eh? As I told you, this is not the Los Angeles of the clean-cut, Joe Friday, 'just the facts, mam Dragnet variety.

I am heartily recommending this book without reservation. If you like police procedurals, you may very well like The Big Nowhere. If you like Jonathan Kellerman novels, you will find that this book has something for you. If you like a good mystery, you can't go wrong with The Big Nowhere. If you like 'hardboiled, tough-guy' fiction, this book will definitely speak to you. If you like film noir movies, again, ditto.

Thank you for reading.


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