James Ellroy’s breakthrough into crime-fiction success in the late 1980s was comparable in its impact and controversy to—what? Perhaps the 1913 Paris debut of Igor Stravinsky’s notorious, upsetting, violent ballet-score The Rite of Spring
. Splice that with anyone’s first glimpse of the eyeball scene in Bunuel and Dali’s 1929 e´pater-les-bourgeois
film Un Chien Andalou.
A more American parallel might be the furor created in swing-jazz circles in the 1940s when a cadre of New York musicians gave birth to the raucous, frenzied sounds of bebop—or when, in the ’50s, rhythm and blues and rockabilly spawned the decadent, repetitive, aggressive sounds of rock’n’roll: a musical-verbal-sensual poke in the ear to white-bread sensibilities.
This author’s in-your-face novels gave you verbatim police reports, period radio-chatter, self-righteous scandal-sheet tease, sober newspaper prose, thought-patterns, brainstorms, stream of subconsciousness dreads: all transcribed or telepathed with kaleidoscope clarity. Place-names and call-letters and street-numbers and local celebs put you right back in the 1950s: KGFJ, KMPC, Hody’s on Vine Street, the Pacific Dining Car; Scrivner’s Drive-in, Tiny Naylor’s, Sy Devore, Spade Cooley, Jerry Geisler.
Ellroy’s books, especially the four gathered in this volume, seemed unlike any detective- or crime-fiction written yet: a scary mélange of grisly murders, perverse obsessions, civic corruption, corrosive cynicism and contagious evil. And butcherous violence. These books had protagonists, not heroes. Ostensibly police-procedurals, their cops were often as thuggish, larcenous, and murderous as the gangsters with whom they oft collaborated. Expediency was the best policy for them, and their first commandment was survival.
Ellroy’s semi-antiheroes reminded some older readers and critics of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, that post-World War II private-eye who inflicted mayhem on foes both male and female with a glee that could seem fascistic. The English novelist and detective-fiction scholar Julian Symons, for one, was repelled by the matter-of-fact manner in which Ellroy depicted (hence, it might seem, condoned) violence: ‘‘I banged his head against the wall, threw him out the window screaming’’ (chapter 2, White Jazz
). But other knowledgeable commentators saw Ellroy as being squarely (if jarringly) in the all-American hard-boiled tradition: Richard Layman, the premier chronicler of Dashiell Hammett (whose Red Harvest
was, it could be said, the White Jazz
of 1929) judged of The Black Dahlia
and its author: ‘‘Ellroy is here to stay. Our great-grandchildren will be reading this book.’’
It was in The Black Dahlia
(1987)—a fiction work based on the nightmarish real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, the most notorious unsolved crime in Los Angeles history—that James Ellroy displayed his mature vision and was rewarded with bestselling success.
The hallmarks of Ellroy’s soon-familiar style are on full display here. The intersection of historical figures with fictional characters is presented in audacious, take-it-or-leave-it fashion. The scenes of slaughter and depravity are worthy of a Tijuana-bible drawn by H. Bosch (the painter, not Michael Connelly’s cop). Racial epithets—the n-word, the j-word, the other j-word, and on and beyond—are ubiquitous, seeming much more shocking on the page of a 1980s depiction of 1950s L.A. than they were in Raymond Chandler’s 1930s/’40s books; our awareness of those ugly words coming out of Philip Marlowe’s mouth somehow gets lost in Chandler’s romantic fog.
Framing the novel’s search for the Black Dahlia killer is the friendship and sometimes partnership of two cops, Bucky Bleichert (the novel’s narrator) and Lee Blanchard: both exboxers, both in love with the smart and passionate Kay, an experienced woman who bears a checkered and traumatic past with dignity. The cop duo negotiate a milieu in which they interact with such real-life figures as mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, and where police higher-ups and civic officials take advantage of high-profile crimes to advance their own careers and inflate their budgets.
Inexorably but in unpredictable ways, Lee and Bucky each become possessed by the memory of Elizabeth Short (‘‘Betty’’) whose brief, sordid life and cruel death stir up and supplement their own worst memories of physical and moral pain suffered and inflicted.
Of The Black Dahlia
, Ellroy would later write: ‘‘The novel is phrased as a young man coming of age in a hell of his own making. Bucky Bleichert is solely responsible for his own descent. He made specious moral choices early in life and brought a grievously flawed soul to the Dahlia.’’ But in moving forward, he is able in part to mend: ‘‘Love requires self-sacrifice and deference. Bucky Bleichert learns that and achieves a tenuous peace.’’
There seems no peace in store at first in The Big Nowhere
, Ellroy’s unrelenting follow-up to the best-selling Dahlia
. Set in 1950, three years after the (still unsolved of course) killing of Elizabeth Short, it too begins with a horrific murder involving a mutilated corpse: ‘‘Eyes poked out. Sex organs mauled. Bare flesh gored down to the quick.’’ But this victim is male, the killing has apparent homosexual aspects, and the powers that be want to clamp a lid on press coverage, hoping to avoid ‘‘another Black Dahlia mess.’’
Catching the unwanted case is L.A. Sheriff’s deputy Danny Upshaw: a studious, ascetic rookie whose career choice was prompted by the haunting memory of glimpsing two men in a farmhouse at night attacking a blonde woman with axes, this surreal vision (‘‘a half-second flash of an arm severed off’’) viewed as Upshaw raced a stolen car to Bakersfield during an adolescent criminal stint. Thus the would-be crook became a cop instead, with an abiding need to comprehend the roots of evil: ‘‘to know WHY.’’
It never rains but it pours: soon Upshaw encounters two more related murders, even more brutal (you may not want the details, but you’ll get them). To win the chance to be in charge of investigating these linked slaughters, Upshaw agrees to join a covert grand-jury investigation documenting Communist infiltration of the movie business. Among the other Red-hunters is Turner ‘‘Buzz’’ Meeks, native of Lizard Ridge, Oklahoma: ‘‘heroin skimmer, shakedown artist, bagman and now a glorified pimp for Howard Hughes’’ and ‘‘the man who held the possible distinction of being the single most crooked cop in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department.’’ Meeks is comfortable in the niche he’s found between law and ordure, but he develops a fatal flaw (or, in Ellroy’s theology, a chance for redemption): his lust-driven love for Audrey ‘‘the Va-Va-Voom Girl’’ Anders, mobster Mickey Cohen’s stripper girlfriend. ‘‘I’m glad bein’ with you is dangerous,’’ Buzz tells Audrey, once their crush is physically consummated. ‘‘It feels good.’’
Also among the elite Red-hunters is Lt. Mal Considine, District Attorney’s investigator, a man trapped in a wretched marriage entered into to protect a stepson he dotes upon; Mal develops an unexpected romantic interest in Claire De Haven, glamorous Hollywood activist and fiancé of a fading movie star. Rounding out the conspiracy committee (under the leadership of hyper-ambitious Ellis Loew, head of the DA’s Criminal Division) is LAPD Homicide Detective Dudley Smith: Dublin-born, Jesuit-trained, glib, blarney-spouting oozer of insidious charm, wily as the snake in Genesis: ‘‘Knock knock, who’s there? Dudley Smith, so Reds beware.’’
Ellroy’s conflicted characters have fault-lines as deep as the San Andreas. They battle and indulge their obsessions, compulsions and repulsions in the context of their work, which plays into and out against a broader historical context. The gruesome murders Upshaw probes have evidentiary links to the Zoot Suit riots and Sleepy Lagoon killings of a few years back—which also have relevance for the DA commission’s charting of left-wing Hollywood activism. The liberals’ current cause, in support of a Hollywood trade-union picketing Howard Hughes’ studio for better pay, puts the left-wingers in opposition to Mickey Cohen’s mob, which supports the rival Teamsters union. The crime mobs themselves are in longstanding opposition, with Cohen’s outfit pitted against Jack Dragna’s crew—which is protected by a squad of the LAPD, while the West Hollywood Sheriff ’s Department gives Mickey Cohen cover.
Agendas clash. Obsessions rage. Yet the bizarre cases (which may or may not have much to do with the ‘‘larger issues’’ at hand) still must in some fashion or other be solved. Cops as different from one another as Upshaw and Meeks, driven by the best and worst of motives, comb through old booking slips and arrest reports, coerce witnesses, call in favors, break as many rules as they hope to enforce in search of THE fiendish soul whose repulsive acts go beyond baroque into the obscenely rococo.
Guilt proves especially difficult to fix in L.A. Confidential
, third and longest of the L.A. Quartet books. Trying as hard as anyone to prove who’s responsible for the after-hours deaths of six customers at Hollywood’s Nite Owl Cafe´ in 1953 is the cold and manipulative Ed Exley, son of a former policeman turned construction magnate. Though decorated for his World War II service (thanks to a somewhat padded official record), Ed is despised by his LAPD colleagues as a cowardly martinet. Though a desk-officer, not a field cop, he takes a hands-on approach to the Nite Owl case when the obvious (convenient) suspects—three young black men the police claim have confessed— escape from jail but are soon run to ground. Exley beards them in their lair and single-handedly assassinates them (what, self-defense?)—then lives to confront the unexpected consequences, when in ’58 new evidence proves the shotgunned suspects couldn’t have been the Nite Owl killers after all.
No worries. ‘‘That’s blood under the bridge,’’ says Dudley Smith, one of several recidivist characters making recurring appearances throughout the Quartet. Exley, Smith and the other men serving with and under Ed simply ‘‘solve’’ the case again—this time, they insist, for real. Among Exley’s minions: Wendell ‘‘Bud’’ White: ‘‘frustrated because he wasn’t that smart, he wasn’t really a Homicide detective—he was the guy they brought in to scare other guys shitless.’’ Then there’s Jack ‘‘the Big V’’ Vincennes, official police adviser to the TV show Badge of Honor
(a lot like Dragnet
, aka Badge 714
), engineer of juicy cop stories for Hush-Hush
magazine (remember Confidential
?), whose sex life has been turned rancid by twisted fantasies and who lives in despair of being exposed as a cop fraud and political fixer.
Multiple homicides, a botched pornography racket, strange interlocking criminal conspiracies and personality-disorder flameouts complicate matters. For plot twists and switchbacks and Mobius-strip encounters, post-modern authors such as John Barth or Thomas Pynchon have nothing on Ellroy, whose moments of surprising subtlety and out-of-the-blue sentiment nonetheless ground his fiction in the real world in which we live.
That world is no less astounding and perilous in the Quartet’s final novel, White Jazz
, set in 1958. After decades of having things their own ways, L.A.’s cops and mobsters are to come under the scrutiny of federal investigators hoping to indict those enmeshed in the crooked local prize-fight racket and maybe sundry other illicit endeavors to boot. Down-on-his-luck Mickey Cohen has meanwhile branched into low-budget film-making on location in Griffith Park. And in the nearby Hollywood Hills, a creepy killer has been victimizing alcoholic hobos; the gutter-press dubs the fiend the ‘‘Wino Will-o-the-Wisp.’’
Ed Exley, now LAPD Chief of Detectives, gives Lt. Dave Klein (a cop with a law degree, and the novel’s narrator) the task of rousting a few bookie joints, thus earning the Department some favorable press to counter the Feds’ bad-mouthng. Klein, who hates the condescending Exley (but who knows? that may change) is another deeply compromised officer—not averse to accepting money to kill people whose continued existence proves troublesome to Mickey Cohen or his even scarier friends. (As noted earlier: ‘‘I banged his head against the wall, threw him out the window screaming.’’) Also, up pops Dudley Smith again, at last to get a fair-sized comeuppance. (Apologies if that spoils things for anyone. Think of it as something to look forward to.)
Thumbnail summaries do not suffice. These books spiel out with a mind-boggling, memory-taunting complexity of plot, thought and conjecture that rivals or surpasses the crazy cat’scradles of Ross Macdonald (aka
Kenneth Millar), a writer Ellroy dedicated a book to and invoked in the epigraph to White Jazz
. As with Macdonald, even the minor characters in Ellroy’s books are fleshed out with quick strokes that would do Goya or Daumier proud. But then that sudden violence: blood-soaked action fit to make Spillane chuckle—or gasp, depending.
For some, Ellroy’s most notable achievement will be the inducement in readers of sympathy (or at least empathy) (or at the very least, some understanding) for initially unforgivable-seeming characters such as Dave Klein. How comprehend his villainous deeds in any context other than greed and evil? But as Klein shares his backstory in first-person voice, we comprehend: passionate (okay, incestuous) family loyalty made him vulnerable to gangsters who twisted his chivalric impulses to homicidal ends, then insisted he keep ‘‘paying them back’’ with more killings until he felt hooked for life.
This is the sort of thing that happens in Ellroy’s world, a universe of raunchy sex with movie stars, bordellos with fake-believe actresses, and once-real people—L.A. police chief Bill Parker, police chemist Ray Pinker—saying and doing madeup things. ( Justified by poetic license and the powers of invention? As fair as Gore Vidal portraying Thomas Jefferson in Burr
as a dullard and nerd?)
Here are professional and personal blood rivalries that prevail for years and years. Here be high-end homosexual escort services and penny-ante prostitution rings. Here crime solutions and nested conspiracies disprove the thesis of Occam’s Razor—for the simplest answers are not the best, they’re mere starting-points.
Here live the jaded children and seedy grandkids of the blood-simple extras and crazed ‘‘atmosphere people’’ of Nat ‘‘Pep’’ West’s The Day of the Locust
, and also the descendants of James M. Cain’s low-end losers. Still here are the nasty thrills of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon
, the bug-eyed kicks of Todd Browning’s Freaks
. See too the lit-by-lightning moviehouse gropes and sidewalk bleed-outs of press photographer Weegee the Famous. Stag films. Heroin shoot-ups. Strip clubs. Eight-by-ten glossies of bestiality. Body parts tossed in the trash.
As Bob Dylan once asked in a liner note: ‘‘And just how far would you like to go in?’’
James Ellroy’s popularity soon became widespread among young readers and writers. His influence was noticeable in others’ books and movies and TV series, and he himself was seen and heard—looming frame, shaven head, stern gaze, unsmiling lips—over NPR, on PBS, at book events that combined the fervor of an Aimee Semple McPherson revival with the jocular abuse of The Jerry Springer Show.
He was a raucous performer, a crowd natural; yet, encountered one-on-one, courteous: near-courtly, good with children: ‘‘Naw, you can’t hurt me, you know why? ’Cause I’m a tough
The art stands on its own of course. But—be we biographers, psych students, curious book-club members or just plain nosy parkers—it’s human nature to wonder, who would or could cook up this psychic grue? And why? Who ‘‘is’’ the author behind these grotesque, convoluted, oft-unpleasant stories?
Everything begins in childhood, experts insist. Nothing in this novelist’s history belies that claim. He’s been kind enough to provide us himself with the necessary proof—for instance, in a 2006 afterword to The Black Dahlia
in which he wrote of his family and upbringing with candor and heroic respect. Of the mother who was murdered in 1958 when he was ten (another unsolved L.A. homicide): ‘‘I hated her and lusted for her and got my wish of her dead,’’ he described his first reactions. When he later learned (through a book by Jack Webb, star of TV’s Dragnet
) the story of Elizabeth Short, he conflated the Black Dahlia’s fate with his mother’s. His obsession with crime and punishment was sealed.
As a youth, he’s written, he broke into houses, committed petty crimes, felt he was ‘‘born to think single-mindedly and live obsessively.’’ When his father died in 1965: ‘‘I spent the next twelve years in a near-insane spiral. I cleaned up at twenty-nine. I wrote six good novels’’—then came the psychic and artistic breakthrough of The Black Dahlia
After that, his growing knowledge of and appreciation and love for the woman who bore him inspired a well-received nonfiction work and no doubt influenced his fiction in crucial ways. Like the worthiest of his novels’ problematic personae, the author ‘‘made specious moral choices early in life’’ but learned ‘‘love requires self-sacrifice and deference’’—and hence, like Bucky Bleichert, he’s achieved ‘‘a tenuous peace.’’
Ellroy, son of a Calvinist-raised mother, writes: ‘‘I tell redemptive tales aimed at women.’’ He urges: ‘‘Love God. Fear God. Seek goodness as dark forces assail you.’’ Words to live by—and to write by.
Or, as one of his own blunt characters once put it: ‘‘No shit, Sherlock.’’
Copyright © 2019 by James Ellroy; Introduction by Tom Nolan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.