‘The Big Nowhere’ book review: a seminal crime novel that has aged beautifully

“Hard cases, rogue cops and red chasers.”

Originally released 30 years ago in September, “The Big Nowhere” has aged perfectly.  It is a crime story taking place in Los Angeles at the end of the 1940s, and the second book in writer James Ellroy’s “LA Quartet.”

This book follows the first novel, “The Black Dahlia,” but it can stand completely on its own. The characters and story are different, but it’s in that same Ellroy-verse.  It has three protagonists, and each having their separate story, including Danny Upshaw, a young policeman investigating the brutal murder of multiple men, Turner “Buzz” Meeks, a former policeman working for Mickey Cohen (a very well known mobster at the time) and Mal Considine, a war hero that is assigned to a task force aimed at taking down a communist group deep within Hollywood. Their paths eventually intertwine, all the while transporting you to a place with a heavy post-war, anti-communist atmosphere filled with corrupt cops and gangsters.

One of the things crucial to this book holding up even in a new generation, and what I appreciate thoroughly, is the flow of reading it. This book originally came out in 1988, and I often find myself expecting a challenge when I find a book that came out in the 20th century. I have attempted to read books from that same decade before, but I just couldn’t finish any of them because of how difficult they were to read.

The story sounds convoluted at first, but it really is incredibly well told and written, with the main strength that holds everything together perfectly being those three main characters. All three are incredibly flawed men, to the point where they could be simply called bad men in general, but Ellroy writes them in a way that lets you root for them in some type of way, and  each have their own separate stories. I was very invested. They are timeless characters too, and their struggles could really happen in any time period. For all their flaws, I really loved all three of them by the end.

Additionally, the cityscape that the characters are in is easy to picture. Los Angeles is presented in an authentic-feeling way being a sprawling place, with a lot of beauty and a lot of ugly. Ellroy weaves in real historical figures into the story line, such as Mickey Cohen, Jack Dragna and Howard Hughes, but he put them in there in a way that doesn’t pull you out of the experience. Police as a whole are portrayed as flawed and corrupt, and very much tied with crime, which I suspect has truth, because Ellroy has received countless bits of story and information from former cops of that area, so there is nobody to really trust in the town. You don’t need any knowledge of the state of Los Angeles or any of those historical figures at the time. Ellroy introduces it smoothly in a way that really won’t alienate anyone.

Being the late 1940s to early 1950s, the anti-communist task force story line is a very interesting change of pace. It is different than the usual killer story, and it really makes you question Ellroy’s vision of the LAPD and LA Sheriff’s credibility and motivations. The communist story line is tied with Hollywood, and it leads down an interesting rabbit hole that doesn’t let up.

To pedal backward, the thing that really stuck out for me the most in this novel were the three incredibly flawed protagonists. I always appreciate lovable characters, and being a one-off story. I feel like these characters were perfectly made. You can really connect with them and their human traits and struggles. Even though they are not the best people, they make some destructive decisions, but it makes them feel authentic. You really root for them. Normally, I get annoyed when a book has different story  lines that are separate at first, but Ellroy really made it so you could be interested in all of them. Danny is a young and troubled, but also incredibly skilled investigator, Mal is an extremely flawed veteran that means well and Meeks is a dude from Oklahoma who does odd strong-arm jobs for the mob. It is insane how fleshed out these guys are.

This novel is phenomenal. I mean it can also be argued as incredibly influential too, as the two seasons of HBO’s “True Detective” have many similarities to the book (most obviously “True Detective” season 2), and really that season may try to emulate what Ellroy wrote, but I can’t think of one bad thing about the book. The book has derogatory language that definitely will offend, but Ellroy does that to keep the authenticity, and really show the backward aspects of society in the 1950s, some of which are still around now. Honestly, “The Big Nowhere” is one of the best novels I have ever read. It really had me interested from beginning to end with Ellroy’s natural storytelling. I hope the rest of his novels live up to the standards that “The Big Nowhere” set.