A guest post by Icepick
- Best place to start reading James Ellroy? was the question that started this glorious thunder rolling. It has made Ellroy irresistible to me. I’ll be hitting the bookstore tomorrow. ~ amba
Well, you will either love Ellroy or hate him. I don’t see how one can react to him any other way. His style became very refined, and like strong distillates isn’t for everyone. The language is very rough as well, and if you’re offended by racist language then skip this stuff altogether. And after the Black Dahlia there are no true Good Guys, and it’s an open question if there were good guys in that one.
(I mean of the main characters. Russ Millard is a secondary character of importance that comes across as good, competent and decent. That makes him the rarest bird in the books. Probably the next closest after that is the almost psychotically violent Bud White, whose strongest moral characteristic is his ability to beat anyone to within an inch of their life, or worse, if ordered to do so. The third most decent guy keeps killing all the wrong people, gets his wife killed for NOT killing the right person, sleeps with his stepmother, helps her kill his father, pushes heroin, is involved in slavery and human experimentation, etc. But he feels REALLY BAD about it. Not for the faint of fucking heart!)
OTOH there’s lots of great stuff. The way he can paint a picture of someone’s interior life is brilliant, and some of the chapters amaze. The final lines of American Tabloid are brilliant, as is the intro. (You can see the intro and a chunk of the first chapter on Amazon. The final lines: “She held him with her eyes and her mouth. The roar did a long slow fade. He braced himself for this big fucking scream….” The setting for that was just off Dealey Plaza.)
He’s got seven novels that really count – the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz) and the Underworld USA Trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover).
The last three of the L.A. Quartet tie together, but any of them can be read separately. L.A. Confidential is the most well-known to non-Ellroy readers, just because of the highly successful movie. It and White Jazz are the two best written – by that point Ellroy had fully mastered his craft and his POV. But the books are dense and complicated, plot-wise. For example the movie L.A. Confidential only covers about a third of the story at best.
Anyway, each of the two groupings features characters that overlap from one novel to the next, and the Underworld USA stuff starts with a minor character from White Jazz. If this is sounding Byzantine, that’s because it is. For example, Ellroy says that the men that wrote the screenplay for L.A.C. took it from eight story lines down to three, and shaved off about two-thirds of the characters.
I’d recommend starting with L.A. Confidential. The Big Nowhere is good, and it explains how Buzz Meeks comes to have a bunch of Jack Dragna’s and Mickey Cohen’s heroin and money at the start of L.A.C., but it also lacks the driving force of L.A.C. The Commie Hunt at the center of TBN just seems silly. (To be fair, it seemed silly to most of the characters as well. It was done solely for reasons of political ambition.) White Jazz is perhaps the best written, but I really think it needs the set-up of L.A.C. to fully appreciate the ongoing clash between Edmund Exley and Dudley Liam Smith. The Black Dahlia has its moments, but the plot and especially the resolution are kind of out there. I swear, the last 60 or so pages of Dahlia feature more apparent endings that the LotRs novels, and about seven major plot twists per sentence.
(Incidentally, I think Dudley Smith is scarier, by the end of White Jazz, than Hannibal Lecter. Lecter was kind of a demigod amongst men, but essentially a loner. Smith is an organizational genius, a brilliant operator, ruthless, efficient and very intelligent, with a flair for extreme violence. And he’s got psychopaths that work for HIM.)
The L.A. Quartet is focused on the L.A. police department of the post-WWII era. Underworld USA is focused on the intersection of the various underworld types in the US from the late 1950s to the early 1970s: CIA, FBI, Mob, billionaire recluses with insane amounts of wealth (Howard Hughes), and a millionaire gangster (Joe Kennedy) intent on taking over the country by getting one son after another elected to the Presidency. Throw in white supremacists, scheming pols and Mormons and you round it out, with a bunch of nutty commies thrown in for leavening in Blood’s a Rover. The books are insanely conspiratorial, and ultra violent. Basically, almost every conspiracy about the JFK assassination you’ve heard is correct in Ellroy’s telling. Ditto the MLK and RFK assassinations. As he puts it in a later novel, “Everything you suspect is true, and not at all what you think.”
American Tabloid would be the place to start those novels. The LAQ novels aren’t necessary at all for these, but these three really should be read in order. Ellroy specializes in characters with deep flaws, and not the kind that are redeeming either. He’s rather disdainful of Raymond Chandler, although I can’t find the quote I want on that topic.
And this Wikipedia bit explains his narrative style quite nicely:
Hallmarks of his work include dense plotting and a relentlessly pessimistic—albeit moral—worldview. His work has earned Ellroy the nickname “Demon dog of American crime fiction.”
Ellroy writes longhand on legal pads rather than on a computer and prepares elaborate outlines for his books, most of which are several hundred pages long.
Dialog and narration in Ellroy novels often consists of a “heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular” with a particular use of period-appropriate slang. He often employs stripped-down staccato sentence structures, a style that reaches its apex in The Cold Six Thousand and which Ellroy describes as a “direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that’s declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards.” This signature style is not the result of a conscious experimentation but of chance and came about when he was asked by his editor to shorten his novel White Jazz from 900 pages to 350. Rather than removing any subplots, Ellroy achieved this by eliminating verbs, creating a unique style of prose. While each sentence on its own is simple, the cumulative effect is a dense, baroque style.
The thing that gets me is that he can write in a variety of different styles, and do it well. The man is a true craftsman – it’s obvious he has worked and worked and worked on his craft, and as is the case with most masters, he makes it look easy.* It actually makes me despair of doing any writing, even blog comments.
Which is not to say I don’t have criticisms here and there. But criticism in general often comes down to complaints about how the nostrils flare on Michelangelo’s David. Nitnitnitnitnit….
The language as Ellroy uses it is appropriate for the milieu and for the characters. He mostly writes using third-person POV perspectives. Any given chapter will use the perspective of one character. Typically he uses three characters for each book. The Black Dahlia and White Jazz are exceptions, written as straight memoirs. Blood’s a Rover has a frame of sorts that makes it seem as though it should be a memoir, but that frame has no impact on the body of the book. There are characters in the Underworld USA trilogy that object to such language. They tell others so in conversation, and the language doesn’t appear in the non-dialogue portions of their chapters.
Incidentally, Blood’s a Rover is actually the weakest book of the bunch. The plot is murky, the character’s motivations don’t always make sense, and it has other problems. (Including, strangely, four obvious typos. Those were the only typos I saw in seven books. However, I think that was the only first edition I read, so that’s probably it.) But it still contains some brilliant writing, and it also has the best title. When I saw the title I thought, “Now THAT sounds like a noir title!” I was surprised to find it’s actually from an A. E. Housman poem:
Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover;
Breath’s a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey’s over
There’ll be time enough for sleep.
I confess I just don’t get most poetry, and thus I miss out on stuff like this.
White ethnic awareness (and friction) was one of the things that surprised me when I moved to Baltimore in 2000. I’d hear Germans complaining about “drunken Micks,” Irish folks bitching about “Polacks,” etc. And that was in the office! Having been born in Florida in 1968 almost the only ethnic difference I was aware of was White and Black. You were one or the other and that was that. (There was a smattering of “other” here and there – Vietnamese and Filipinos and such. Almost no Hispanic presence in Central Florida back then. And all the Others put together didn’t amount to any kind of presence.) I’m guessing that was a byproduct of The Movement.
But Ellroy’s heavy use of derogatory slang* terms for Blacks especially stands out to the modern reader – one just doesn’t SAY that kind of stuff anymore. If someone asks a question which has an affirmative answer, the person being questioned invariably responds “Can n*****s dance?” Whenever anyone is going to the Black section of LA it is referred to as N*****town. And since all the characters are jazz fiends someone is always going to that part of town. It actually reminds me of listening to my father and his buddies in construction talking back in the day – a “reckless verisimilitude” matches reality to a ‘T’.
* [1940s – ’50s period slang, remember ~ ed.]
I only started reading Ellroy earlier this year. I was clicking around the tube one night when I couldn’t sleep and stumbled on the premier episode of James Ellroy’s LA: City of Demons on the Investigate Discovery (ID) channel. Ellroy doesn’t just write “detective fiction”, he is also a true crime buff. And so he did a six part series for ID about various crimes and criminals from the LA scene. The first episode focused on the unsolved murders of Elizabeth Short in 1947 (the Black Dahlia case – back in 1947 it was the Case of the Century. I don’t know what the Case of the Century was in 1948) and of his own mother in 1958, when Ellroy was ten years old. “Dead women own me” was the constant refrain. I was hooked.
I went to the library the next day and checked out The Black Dahlia (his fictionalized retelling of the Elizabeth Short murder) and L.A. Confidential. That library branch didn’t have The Big Nowhere so I read that one out of order after White Jazz. Down here in Orange County we have a very good public library system. The nicest feature is that they will deliver books to your home free of charge. I could have just ordered the books and waited, but I HAD to go to the nearest branch ASAP, even though I had to take my seven-and-a-half month old daughter with me and lug her around the branch with me. (Carrying a young squirming child while browsing the stacks isn’t the hardest thing I’ve done, but it wasn’t easy.)
(Incidentally, I don’t really read much in the detective/mystery genre. I’m off and on making my way through the original Sherlock Holmes stuff. I must have read Poe’s detective stuff when I was a teenager. And I have read Booked to Die, which was kind of fun. But that’s really it for me.)
Ellroy on camera is nothing like Ellroy the author. He has crafted a public persona that is much like the Sid Hudgens character from L.A. Confidential. (That was Danny DeVito’s character in the movie.) Speech suffused with gratuitous alliteration, absolute moral judgment, and a tabloid taste for scandal and depravity. That persona is somewhat buffoonish, and the alliterations often make no sense at all if you parse them out, but it is mesmerizing. Even the CGI talking police dog was a hoot. The next two episodes focused on the scandal rags (including a new interview with Lana Turner’s daughter – the one that stabbed Lana’s boyfriend Johnny Stompanato to death) and serial killers. AND THEN THEY TOOK IT OFF THE AIR! What the Hell? How bad do the ratings have to be to cancel a six part special series already in the can halfway through on the ID channel? What, you can’t air them at three in the morning on a Thursday? I’m still miffed.
(At least they stopped on a high note. Ellroy ends the episode on serial killers sitting in a diner speaking with Barko, the CGI police dog. Ellroy is bitching (ahem) that “the novelty of a talking dog is wearing thin. Besides, everyone knows you’re the real star of the show.” Barko offers to cheer him up by the two of them knocking over a liquor store and framing some gangbangers. Ellroy responds, “What about witnesses?” Barko: “What are they gonna say? ‘We were robbed by an aging burn-out and a talking dog’?”)
But by then I was already through Dahlia, into L.A. Confidential, and it was the written word that mattered. I didn’t finish the books until about week ago (I can only read in short bursts because of my daughter, so it took a LONG time), and I’m still kind of stuck in the Ellroy Zone. He’s got other stuff I can read, including the novels he wrote before Dahlia. But my impression is that Ellroy was still learning his craft at that point so I’m going to pass. There’re also memoirs (probably very interesting – he is one seriously fucked up individual), a couple of short story collections and some true crime stuff (Destination: Morgue!). But I really need to decompress, so I’m going to back off for now and search out something less intense to read.
PS It was unfair in one of the comments above to describe that one guy as the third most “good” character in the two series. He’s probably only the fifth or sixth most good character.
PPS My cat deleted well more than 200 words. I composed this in Word just to be safe. You’d think I’d do that with most comments after sharing homes with cats for the last 13 years, but the lesson never sticks.
One final Ellroy comment – at times the guy is fucking hilarious. There’s a scene in American Tabloid with Jimmy Hoffa talking with some Mob bosses. Jimmy starts off with “Those goddamned cocksucker Kennedys are trying to fuck me like the Pharoah fucked Jesus!” The conversation goes downhill from there and ends with “So don’t make Joe Kennedy sound like Jesus handing God the Ten Commandments on Mount Fucking Vesuvius,” which is, of course, in Yosemite National Park.
One FINAL final Ellroy comment. After I finished Dahlia I gave my wife (who wasn’t reading the book and hasn’t read the book) a three hour plus recap of the last sixty pages. She told me it was an interesting recap, but I was just completely wound up. She also tells me I’ve been recapping stuff regularly since then. (She actually said “nightly” but I don’t quite believe that – I’ve occassionally gone a few days without reading any Ellroy.) I’m still wound up over a week later, as perhaps you have surmised.