James Ellroy

Here, as promised earlier, is a slightly edited version of my Palimpsest post about James Ellroy:

Frankly, James Ellroy is God. He is without doubt the world’s best living crime author, and I’d wager that he’d the best crime writer ever. Fascinating, if horrifying, life, too: his mother was murdered when James was ten, a crime that has gone unsolved. He then lived with his father, a man who did the odd bit of accounting for Hollywood stars, was obsessed with sex and was hung like a donkey. Apparently. Anyway, James pretended to be a Nazi at his largely Jewish school, got kicked out, joined the army, got a dishonourable discharge (what an ungainly phrase), his dad died, James lived on the streets, sleeping in squats and parks, getting high by swallowing the swabs in nasal inhalers, drinking far too much, breaking into houses and stealing women’s underwear. All through his life as a creep (as he describes it) he was reading crime fiction, watching crime shows. He always knew he would be a writer, but just couldn’t be bothered trying. In the end, health problems made him kick the drink and the swabs, get a job and a flat and start writing.

Here’s a quick rundown of his work.

Brown’s Requiem (1981) – His first novel, written and published while he was still working as a golf caddy. I haven’t read this. I feel like I ought to, if I want to be a true Ellroy-phile.

Clandestine (1982) – I believe this was Ellroy’s first attempt to write about his mother’s murder. I haven’t read it. See above.

Lloyd Hopkins series: Blood on the Moon (1983), Because the Night (1984), Suicide Hill (1986) – these are the earliest of his books that I have read. Available in a handy omnibus format, they are Ellroy-like in their pretty graphic violence, and the high regard he holds women in is evident too, which comes out more forcefully in later books. However. Ellroy acknowledges the influence of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, and much of the serial-killer type content in a couple of these doesn’t really ring true: because, of course, it never does. Ellroy is much, much better when fictionalising real life events and characters.

Silent Terror, known as Killer on the Road in the States (1986) – I have this in my to be read pile. I don’t think it is amoung his strongest work, being his first real attempt at autobiography in his fiction. It’s a first person serial-killer thing. I’ll let you know when I have read it.

The Black Dahlia (1987) – Ellroy’s first classic, and the first book in the LA Quartet. He had for many years closely aligned the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short with that of his mother, and this book is his attempt at cahtharsis. It makes excellent use of some of the modernist elements of Ellroy’s style, notably the insertion of (fictional) newspaper clippings and police reports, often following one by one describing the same events, so with each one you build up a bigger picture of what is going on. It’s gruesome, gripping and the book where he really came into his own.

The Big Nowhere (1988) – The first book to feature Dudley Smith (edit: just realised this is a lie, he appears in Clandestine, apparently), though here only in very much a background role. The storyline is pretty bizaare, and unpleasant, involving communists, gay cops, an actor with a severely nacissistic streak, police corruption, drug deals and all sorts else besides. It’s the real start of Ellroy’s fiendishly complicated plotlines. Trouble is, much of the story is taken up with the hunt for a serial killer, and so I found it therefore pretty unsatisfactory in itself. It is essential reading, however, if only because it sets up the work of genius that is

LA Confidential (1990) – The book that really set Ellroy apart from anyone else writing crime fiction, anywhere, anytime, as far as I am concerned. The brutality, darkness and seediness that infests the novel grips the reader in. In this book Ellroy also starts really developing his style, the scattergun use of clipped sentences, one word sentences, one word paragraphs. Alliteration, too – sometimes you feel you are reading a scandal rag like those lampooned by ‘Hush-Hush’. Ellroy claims he writes about men better than anyone else on the planet, and he has a point. Probably his most famous book, what with Curtis Hanson’s film being released to tumultous praise in 1997. The film is brilliant, the book shits on the film from a great height. It has some good jokes, too.

White Jazz (1992) – Have only read this once, a couple of years ago. It’s widely considered Ellroy’s best, even better than LA…. I think it requires a re-read from me. Dave Klein, an LAPD detective, gets embroiled in the Dudley Smith / Ed Exley feud. The twists and movements and jumps in perspective come one after the other, and it is often hard to know who is on who’s side at any one time. I think that’s the intention, though. The Ellroy site says this: “When his editor asked Ellroy to shorten his 900 page work to 350, Ellroy did so by eliminating the verbs. Stylistically, it’s the strangest prose Ellroy’s written.” Too right. The last of the LA Quartet.

American Tabloid (1994) – The start of Ellroy’s move away from ‘straight’ crime fiction and into a genre busting historical/noir/crime/politics thing he calls the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy. This is brilliant, my second fave Ellroy and features his greatest character, Pete Bondurant. Telling the story of JFK’s assasination, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco from the viewpoint of the Mob, the FBI and the political establishment. I guess it might put people off – ‘duh, another JFK conspiracy book’ but it’s well worth reading for the other bits, which make up 90% of the narrative. Indispensible reading.

Dick Contino’s Blues and Other Stories (1994) – This is a collection of short stories centered on the characters in the LA Quartet. I haven’t read this yet, but own it and am looking forward to it. I believe it is known as Hollywood Nocturne in the US.

My Dark Places (1996) – Shocking. Part true crime, part memoir, this book details the murder of Ellroy’s mother, the failed police investigation, his life subsequent to that, and his own attempt to solve the crime. He fails in that, but the book is a triumph. I’ve read some reviews which claim the descriptions of police procedure drag, but they must be wimps: Ellroy’s momentum carries you through. What shocks is Ellroy’s candour, especially about his own feelings and failings. Excellent.

Crime Wave (1999) – A collection of Ellroy’s true crime (mostly) pieces from GQ. I don’t have this, so can’t comment, though I think gil might have mentioned it disparagingly in Palimpular past. Ellroy does have something of a fetish for documenting routine police procedures, which could get irritating, I guess. I’ll have to wait and see.

The Cold Six Thousand (2001) – This was Ellroy’s first full length fiction for five years, and the follow-up to American Tabloid, and is a beast. Long, inpenetrable, complicated and violent, it is brilliant. Some reviewers attacked it’s style, which I’ll admit is an acquired taste, but their inability to stick with it shows what a lily livered bunch of geeks they must be. The story mesmerises you – you haven’t a clue what is going on half the time, but who cares?! It’s a wild ride, and Ellroy treats his most endearing character (the afore-mentioned Bondurant) well and generally it ends pretty satisfactorilly for the reader, if not the protagonists, which makes forn a nice change.

Destination: MORGUE! (2004) – Another collection of different bits of prose, I’m not sure if some of the essays have been published elsewhere or not – there aren’t any acknowledgements. Covering true crime, boxing and autobiographical pieces, Ellroy is again at his most confessional. I’m in the midst of this at the moment, and it’s a really worthwhile read. The last two-thirds of the book are taken up with a 3 part novella, which I’m looking forward to. Will update when finished.

The follow up to The Cold Six Thousand and the last of ‘Underworld USA’ is putatively titled Police Gazette and should be published towards the end of 2005. I can’t wait. After that, Ellroy is moving onto the 1920s.