Picks and Pans Review: L.a Confidential

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by James Ellroy

Los Angeles in the 1950s is an empty world I devoid of light, filled with danger and I death. Corruption runs rampant, as police and political payoffs have easily evolved into accepted rituals of daily life. Pornography has grown into a lucrative business built on the back of innocence, while greed fuels even the kindest soul.

Into the middle of this sinister storm step three cops—one, Ed Exley, seeking signs of glory; the second, Bud White, hoping to feed his hunger for violence and revenge; the third, Jack Vincennes, trying to keep a buried past hidden. All three are destined to reach their goals in tragic ways.

Ellroy (The Black Dahlia, The Big No-where) is a novelist whose many strong suits don't include wit. His fictional vision is always a haunted one, mangled bodies both guilty and naive littering his landscape. His characters seek out the dark zones, find comfort there, relish the knowledge that an honest answer can be bought, that a bribe is as easy to arrange as a murder.

In this ugly yet engrossing tale, Ellroy paints his blackest portrait. Nearly every character is repulsive—the gangsters are men without honor, the cops are empty of compassion. The women are sexual toys, existing only to supply comfort and motive. Ellroy's story and the gripping manner in which he tells it are violently unsettling, and the series of murders at the core of the novel are as chilling and graphic as anything this side of Stephen King or Robert Block.

Ellroy doesn't aim to please everyone, preferring to patrol the darkest side of the mystery street. He is easily the genre's gloomiest writer, a fictional sculptor gleefully carving away in a universe without beauty, laughter or remorse. L.A. Confidential is the clearest picture yet of that universe, a place swallowed up by darkness, where Ellroy is indeed a prince. (Mysterious Press, $19.95)

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