When it comes to modern Noir writers, it’s difficult to get meaner, crazier, and funnier than James Ellroy. He’s probably my favorite writer of all time, a master of Noir who has created his own unique style – which you either love or hate. I happen to love it and I’ll seek out and read anything he writes. James Ellroy’s got an obsession with sleaze, violence, sin, and history. He specializes in writing historical fiction and revealing all the corruption and violence that had to be there, but has been conveniently forgotten by the popular culture and the history books. It’s great stuff and well worth checking out – but you’ve got to accept it on his terms. If a bleak sense of humor, tons of period appropriate racism, and dark storytelling upset you (or if you don’t like his unique writing style), then you’re probably not going to be happy. I have a feeling that Ellroy himself wouldn’t care.
James Ellroy has a very Noir life, which directly ties into some his fascinations. He was born in Los Angeles and in 1958, when he was just ten-years-old, his mother was murdered. The murder remains unsolved and Ellroy’s obsession with the killing and his guilt spurred his interest in crime. When he grew older, he became a juvenile delinquent and voyeur before finding success in writing crime fiction. Ellroy pumped out a couple of contemporary crime novels, but he didn’t strike gold until he started the LA Quartet series with The Black Dahlia, which provided a grim look at 1940s LA and the infamous Black Dahlia Murder. Ellroy finished the LA Quartet with The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz, telling the entire history of Post-War LA in murders and mystery. Each book in that series is amazing. Ellroy followed it up with the Underworld USA Trilogy, consisting of American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover, which stretches from the late Fifties to the Seventies, and revels in conspiracy surrounding the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Las Vegas, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro shenanigans. His next book, Perfida, is the beginning of a Second LA Quartet dealing with Japanese Internment.
Ellroy’s writing style has evolved over the years, going from the very good, but sort of standard hardboiled first person narrative of The Black Dahlia, to the sparse, staccato of Blood’s A Rover. He tries to emulate the style of the tabloids (often literally, with excerpts from fictional scandal rags like Hush-Hush), with alliteration, copious amounts of slang, racial invective, and repetition. I happen to find it enthralling as it perfectly captures the breathless energy of the characters. If you don’t like it, just stick with his earlier books and you’ll be fine. Another element of Ellroy is his abrasive public personality. Read some interviews with him and you’ll see what I mean. He’s created the unique persona of a kooky ‘White Knight of the Far Right,’ and enjoys lapsing into hardcore conservative screeds or lambasting his critics and the modern world. How much of it is an act is a mystery, but I find that Ellroy’s books speak for themselves and his public appearances – often sporting the same alliteration and fantastic wordplay of his stories – only add to his charm.
Recommended Reading: Because Ellroy’s so prolific and so good, it’s difficult to pick a good starting place. I’d go with LA Confidential, if only because that’s what got me started and sucked me in. It’s a story about three LA cops, a two-fisted tough, a by-the-book up and comer, and a sleazeball, who find themselves working on the same mystery. LA Confidential also has the most disturbing serial killer to ever appear in fiction, the real life Bloody Christmas scandal, and a dark take on Disneyland. The best book of the LA Quartet, in my opinion, is The Big Nowhere, which packs in the Red Scare, the Sleepy Lagoon murder, and a very nuanced homosexual main character – still an unfortunate rarity in Noir. It also introduces Dudley Smith, a corrupt Irish cop who appears through the three remaining LA Quartet books as an ultimate villain – and one of the most reprehensible and evil characters in all fiction. However, if you want a kind of lighthearted, easy start, I’d suggest the short story collection Hollywood Nocturnes. It’s got an excellent number of short crime stories dealing with Golden Age Hollywood sleaze, along with a hilarious novella, Dick Contino’s Blues, about the eponymous real life accordionist trying to get a movie made. Ellroy can be dark and violent, but he can be funny as well, and Hollywood Nocturnes proves that.
Recommended Viewing: The first and best adaptation of James Ellroy is doubtlessly LA Confidential. It fantastically adapts the sprawling novel into a workable film, though the disturbing serial killer and Disneyland subplots are dropped entirely, and features great performances and loads of period detail. It’s probably the gold standard for the modern period piece about 1950s Hollywood. But if you really want a look at an Ellroy Oddity, check out the TV series he did for the Investigation Discovery channel – James Ellroy’s LA City of Demons. It’s got Ellroy talking about topics that matter to him, serial killers, scandal rags, and murder in 1950s LA. He also trades alliterative barbs with a CGI corrupt police dog called Barko. It’s both an unrestrained look into Ellroy’s Id barely classed up for TV, and an interesting bit of period history. I loved it.
Tomorrow – comic book noir with Frank Miller!