‘The Big Nowhere’ by James Ellroy – The Los Angeles Police in the 1950s


‘The Big Nowhere’ by James Ellroy      (1988) – 406 pages


Perhaps I was feeling overstuffed on high quality literature. It was time to shake up my reading big time. I liked the movie ‘L.A. Confidential’, so why not read James Ellroy?

‘The Big Nowhere’ is the second novel in Ellroy’s L. A. Quartet of police novels taking place in the 1950s. It does not matter in what order you read these novels; each novel is stand-alone.

And what did I get with reading ‘The Big Nowhere’? Non-stop sensationalism and wall-to-wall cynicism. Throw in graphic gross unpleasantness, the casual use of racist lingo and stereotypes by policemen, and a lot of general nastiness. I suppose cynicism comes with the job of police officer, but Ellroy’s take on the job is ridiculously extreme.

What outrageous or nasty thing will happen next? The first indication that ‘The Big Nowhere’ was different from most of the novels I read was in the first few pages where there is a detailed graphic description of an autopsy that is being performed on a Los Angeles murder victim. Ellroy is not satisfied with just having several grisly murders as the centerpiece of his novel. They have to be the grisliest murders ever, and we readers get a graphic nauseating description of all the grisly details.

Some of the cops are on the take, working for the crime boss Mickey Cohen who wants to replace the Hollywood labor unions with the Teamsters’ Union which is tightly under the crime boss Cohen’s control.

They come up with this scheme to have a grand jury investigate some of the current union people for Communist ties in order to discredit the current union and replace it with the Teamsters. The cops are all too happy to help out the crime boss Cohen’s scheme, and some of the cops use heavy-handed means to put pressure on the union members. The behavior of the cops is indeed disgusting.

Interspersed between the fictional characters and scenes, there are real personages from the Los Angeles of that time in the early 1950s – Howard Hughes and Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato – who lend a certain unwarranted veracity to the story.

The novel does have a certain narrative energy that keeps you reading. Also I believe Ellroy is quite accurate in his description of police investigations into homicides.

However I will not be reading any more fiction by James Ellroy. I believe that each member of a police force makes a choice. They can be dishonest racist corrupt right-wing fools like Ellroy’s fictional cops or they can attempt to be professional and objective in their outlook and treat people whom they must deal with honestly and fairly. Unlike Ellroy, I believe most police strive to act as true professionals. I have respect for the police unlike Ellroy.


Grade:    C



2 responses to this post.

  1. I think I’ve only read Ellroy’s novel on The Black Dahlia which is the first in the sequence. That was ages ago, and I can’t say I warmed to his style. Not read any more by him – although I did enjoy the film of LA Confidential when it first came out.

    Liked by 1 person


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