James Ellroy: An Appreciation of his books.
James Ellroy – The LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz) The Underworld USA Trilogy, Volume I (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand), Volume II (Blood’s A Rover) Everyman’s Library editions.
It’s no exaggeration to say that with his original LA Quartet, James Ellroy changed crime fiction forever. Before the 1987 publication of The Black Dahlia, he had always been a good writer. His first novel Brown’s Requiem (1981) was set on the LA golf courses where he worked while he cured himself of his own juvenile delinquent tendencies. His second, Clandestine (1982) rewound to the years of his childhood in 1951 and started to tap into the themes that would make him famous, including the birth of his most infamous creation, Lieutenant Dudley Smith. Killer on the Road (1986) was a superior serial killer novel and the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy (1984’s Blood on the Moon, 1985’s Because The Night and 1986’s Suicide Hill) earned him his first Hollywood outing – although he hated the casting of James Woods in 1988’s ‘Cop’, based on the first of the series.
James Ellroy was not content merely to be a good writer, sharing the tried-and-tested tropes of the genre with other runners and riders. He wanted to be a great writer and invent a form that was completely his own – an examination of the secret history of Los Angeles that he put into a perfect noir nutshell with his description of “the private nightmare of public policy”.
Always a true outsider himself, Ellroy saw that all that is wrong with society does not emanate from the criminal classes, but begins with the people who hold and wield the power – politicians, police, industrialists, and for LA especially, Hollyweird and its attendant services. He returned to what he had begun with Clandestine but rewound still further, to the ten-year-old boy he was when his mother was murdered and solace came in the form of Jack Webb’s The Badge, a casebook of LA’s most notorious unsolved crimes. It was from those pages that he first learned of the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, which called to the unanswered mystery of his mother’s last hours. Taking the slangy staccato style of Webb’s oeuvre as his authorial voice, Ellroy time-travelled back to the vacant lot on South Norton Avenue where Short’s bisected, mutilated body was left on the morning of the 15th January 1947. In writing a valediction for the bit part actress known as The Black Dahlia, he alchemized his own demons into authorial gold.
With this book, and the following The Big Nowhere (1988); LA Confidential, (1990) and White Jazz, 1992, Ellroy fused social history, unsolved murder and the hallucinogenic power of his imagination to powerfully evoke 1946-58 Los Angeles in a manner that no other author had ever dreamed of before. Here, fictitious characters seamlessly intersected with real life movie stars, moguls and mobsters as Ellroy divined the truths behind the tabloid headlines, lacing each story with hot leads from Webb’s almanac, including the Nite Owl massacre and Sleepy Lagoon murder. For the first three novels, he used the device of having a trio of men telling each story from their differing perspectives – all of them characters with deep internal conflicts that put them at odds with the roles assigned to them within the Los Angeles Police Department. As well as the aforementioned Smith, he created such memorable men as lapsed detective-turned-Mickey Cohen enforcer Turner Prescott ‘Buzz’ Meeks and ‘Trashcan’ Jack Vincennes, who advises on a TV show based on Jack Webb’s ‘Dragnet’. However, Ellroy’s best characters were always the women – the mysterious, melancholic Kay Lake in The Black Dahlia, Red Queen Claire De Haven in The Big Nowhere, hardboiled heartbreaker Lynn Bracken and demonic dyke Dot Rothstein in LA Confidential. The concluding White Jazz upped the stylistic ante with the stream-of-consciousness memoirs of LAPD detective Dave Klein and pulled the final curtain down on the nefarious activities of Smith. If you have never read these books, the new Everyman edition of the ‘Quartet’ is, quite simply, the Ellroy you need to feed on.
His next adventure was to chart the years between 1958-73 – covering the Cuban Revolution, assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the start of the Vietnam War – plotting the covert machinations behind all these events steered FBI boss J Edgar Hoover, billionaire magnate Howard Hughes and other shady vested interests.
It began in fine style with American Tabloid (1995), which picks up former LASD detective Pete Bondurant from White Jazz and sends him down to Cuba, along with FBI men Kemper Boyd and Ward Littell. Each of this trio initially has a mission to entrap JFK and, at Hoover’s request, ambitious Boyd begins working for the Kennedy clan. He is enamoured of louche Jack but dislikes his more puritanical brother and his vision for the future of law enforcement. Conversely, Littell strikes a rapport with Bobby, whose views on organised crime he shares. This sets him up against the others, when Bondurant and Boyd join the CIA in the attempt to overthrow Castro. The resultant Bay of Pigs fiasco showers bad juju on them all and sets up the motivation for the hit on JFK. Ellroy pulled off his version of this infamous chapter in American history with aplomb, providing visceral thrills to match any of its illustrious ‘Quartet’ antecedents.
Then something happened to change his course. An assignment for GQ magazine took the author back to the pivotal moment of his life, the murder of his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, when he was ten years old. His subsequent reopening of her murder files with retired LAPD detective Bill Stoner became his first memoir, published in 1996, a profoundly moving and eloquent elegy for all three of them. My Dark Places might have been Ellroy’s ultimate act of alchemy, because his fiction writing has never been the same again.
The next two books of the Trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s A Rover (2009) are substantially bigger than any of their predecessors and, partially as a result of this, struggled to convey Ellroy’s aims so engagingly. The former picks up after the JFK assassination and describes the murky events behind the murders of MLK, Bobby Kennedy and the outbreak of the Vietnam War. It follows the trajectories of Bondurant and Littell, bringing in as its third man Wayne Tedrow Jr, an army veteran and LAPD officer who is paid the titular fee to murder a black pimp in Dallas on the day of JFK’s killing, and is pulled into the ensuing chaos. Spanning five years, this tome compressed so much information between its covers that reading it required vigilance – so much history came at the cost of intimacy.
It would be another eight years – and another volume of memoir, The Hilliker Curse – before this trilogy came to its denouement, and it was a puzzling one at that. Blood’s A Rover is named after a stanza in the poem ‘Reveille’ from AE Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’, a collection that was carried into the battlefields of the Somme in the pockets of many a British WWI combatant. The red corpuscles in this volume splatter from LA to Haiti and come courtesy of the fearsome Tedrow and still more extreme FBI agent Dwight Holly, both on missions to install Richard Nixon in the White House at the behest of their respective bosses, Howard Hughes and Hoover – whose combined mental health is not now what it was. Their activities dovetail with those of LA lowlife Don Crutchfield, whose physical appearance and Peeping Tom proclivities recall the young Ellroy; and grey-haired seductress ‘Red Joan’ Klein.
But something went missing in the labyrinth of history. By merit of their size, both these books lack the expert plotting and pacing of American Tabloid and the quality of characterisation suffers from the resultant extended narrative exposition. The women, especially – though Joan Klein may be capable of inspiring Tedrow to a complete personal and political volte-face, she is also the first of Ellroy’s femme fatales who doesn’t quite ring true, a woman who reads suspiciously more like a very well dragged-up man. Getting to the summit of this trilogy necessitated the mental equivalent of a map, compass and quantity of Kendal Mint Cake to sustain the energy – whereas American Tabloid flashed by in an adrenalised headrush.
James Ellroy was back to being a good writer again.
Cathi Unsworth has been described as the Empress of Noir. Her books include ‘Bad Penny Blues’, ‘Weirdo’, ‘Without the Moon’ and her latest, ‘That Old Black Magic’ all available from Serpent’s Tail. She lives in London.
These Everyman editions can be found by clicking this link: James Ellroy Quartet: Everyman Edition.