Best L.A. Novel Ever: L.A. Confidential vs. Double Indemnity, Round 2
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, and L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy, both concern themselves with conspiracies. And both were turned into movies that arguably surpass the books -- no small feat, that. But that's where the similarities end.
In fact, these books could hardly be more different and still both fall under the category of noir.
Published in 1936, Double Indemnity is slim, spare, and elegant in its simplicity -- 115 pages of prose as stripped-down as a sans serif font. Cain's narrator, Walter Neff, sounds like a nice-enough guy, a plain-speaking man who might knock on your door and try to (nicely) sell you an insurance policy.
"I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland," he begins his story. "I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death that you've been reading about in the papers. It didn't look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to the side." Film buffs may recall snappier dialogue -- but that's because Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay. Cain's writing is stylish mostly in the way he captures the voice of a simple man.
Contrast that with Ellroy's opening in L.A. Confidential, which was first published in 1990 and is set in the early '50s:
An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switchblade he'd bought off a pachuco at the border -- right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootjack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.
And that's just the first sentence. For the next 496 pages, Ellroy body-slams the reader with incest, pornography, plastic surgery, rape, prostitution, child murder, tabloid journalism, alcoholism, gangster double-crossing, drug trafficking and more violence than seems humanly possible.
One of our protagonists is shackled to a bed and forced to watch his father beat his mother to death. Another accidentally shoots an innocent couple to death while high on drugs. The third, a supposed war hero, hides under a pile of corpses and later stages the battlefield scene to make it look like he killed 29 Japanese soldiers rather than merely outlasting their suicides. Believe it or not, those are just their backstories -- in the course of the book, they'll suffer even more extreme violence (and inflict it).
Ellroy's story, frankly, is messy. It takes forever to get oriented: Who are all these people? How do they know each other? There are plots on top of plots on top of plots -- and it takes at least a third of the book for the characters' cop talk to make sense to a layman.
And that conspiracy! Double Indemnity has the classic noir construct: A bad woman lures a weak man into a violent crime that he will live to regret. ("I wasn't the only one who knew about that shape. She knew about it herself, plenty," our narrator observes of the woman who will lead him to his doom.) The only thing to fear in Cain's world is our capacity for evil -- and the lust that may drive us to it.
But in Ellroy's book, my God. The conspirators are everywhere: Titans of business trying to cover up past crimes; tabloid reporters trying to muscle in on extortion rackets; pimps covering for their investors; chemists toiling to reap millions on synthetic heroin; plastic surgeons hiding murderers; pornographers recreating the torture of children. Why, even the police could be in on it.
It's tawdry, and vaguely absurd when you try to break it down. But that's the thing about conspiracies, mostly: They're better when you don't break them down.
And they're better when they're bigger. Double Indemnity is a tight little diamond of a book. It's one of the best books ever written about the insurance racket, one of the classics of the noir genre, and nearly perfect in many ways. In contrast, L.A. Confidential is a sloppy stew, a big melange of this, that and everything else but the kitchen sink.
But Ellroy's book is the one that will stick with you, the one that you'll turn over and over in your mind, the one that will make you sigh with relief when it all somehow comes together in the end -- even if you honestly couldn't say who done what along the way. You'll root for his three protagonists, flawed as they are. And you may even be tempted to read it all over again ... and hope that this time, it'll all make sense even from the beginning.
Winner: L.A. Confidential
Previous matchups, from round one: