Ellroy Confidential

May 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm (Guest Post, Icepick)

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.


  1. Icepick said,

    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….

    This comment was a nod to E. L. Doctorow and the novel Ragtime. I haven’t read that book BTW, but I know a little something about it.

  2. karen said,

    W/your ability to cut to the chase and heart of a book, Ice– you could be reviewing them.

    I doubt that i would read any of this guy’s work(maybe), but i loved the analogy w/ pointalism. It is amazing to be able to write in such a vivid and visual way– the stands of a spider’s web, so to speak.

    The reason i’d not be able to read Elloy– i am very freaking faint of heart:0). As hard as a farmer’s life is, i much prefer the hardships and sorrows of this life than that of the ~real world~. Yup, ~Charlotte’s Web~ & Laura Ingall’s Wilder, Ice:0). Polly-freaking-Anna.

  3. karen said,


  4. Maxwell James said,

    Thanks. I’ve been thinking about reading Ellroy for years; you just convinced me.

  5. mockturtle said,

    Haven’t read any Ellroy but was impressed with the film version of L.A. Confidential. I find crime genre novels satisfying if, as in the above-mentioned film, the outcome is satisfying, e.g., the bad guys get caught. {I’m the product of a Lone Ranger childhood ;-)]. Language doesn’t offend me but the inclusion of excessive sexual violence does. How are his novels in that regard? Thanks for the extraordinary review, Ice.

  6. mockturtle said,

    Wow, and I thought I had my italics under control! :-O

  7. mockturtle said,

    STOP ME BEFORE I ITALICIZE AGAIN!!! OK–I think it’s off now.

  8. mockturtle said,

    Sorry about that! Had my slash in the wrong place. :-\

  9. Icepick said,

    The reason i’d not be able to read Elloy– i am very freaking faint of heart.

    Ellroy is not for the faint of heart, not even a little bit, and I really don’t think his work is for everyone. My wife will probably not read any of his work, for example, and I’m fine with that.

    Language doesn’t offend me but the inclusion of excessive sexual violence does. How are his novels in that regard?

    As for the sexual violence – it’s there. I don’t remember any scenes in which it happens directly, but it is described after the fact in coroner’s reports, police reports, reconstructions. You may recall the woman who gets raped in LA Confidential. There’s much more to her story in the book, and if I recall correctly there is added detail about the rapes. The good thing is that, as in the movie, Exley kills the perpetrators. I won’t reveal more.

    Interestingly, the Black Dahlia actually was not sexually molested. Tortured to death over some period of time, yes, and mutilated pari- and post-mortem, but not raped. (I’m speaking about Ellroy’s fictionalized version. Looking around online I don’t see any mention of rape either.) But with that case the absence of rape is almost irrelevant – what was done to her was more than hellish enough to disturb one’s sleep. (That’s one advantage to be an insomniac.)

    Violence against women comes up again and again in the LA Quartet – it’s kind of a counterpoint to the police corruption. And again and again there’s at least one cop obsessed with solving these crimes against women: Blanchard, Bleichert and Millard in Dahlia; Exley, White and (I believe) Vincennes in LA Confidential. The sex crimes in The Big Nowhere are against homosexual men – again, there’s a champion, Danny Upshaw, and eventually Upshaw’s partners Meeks and Considine. The post-mortem descriptions of what happened is very disturbing, perhaps more so for being done clinically as part of an investigation. Ellroy gets away from that in the Underworld USA Trilogy, but it returns in muted form in Blood’s a Rover.

    Sexual depravity also comes up often. There are some scenes in The Black Dahlia that manage to tie for the most sordid scenes I’ve ever read. (Oddly, the only thing I can remember to match it was stuff in a history book concerning WWII in the Pacific.) Mind that when I mean sordid I don’t necessarily mean perversity, or graphic, although both are to some measure true. I mean stuff that’s just maximally degraded. I’m not sure if some of that would count as sexual violence or not. I’ll just say that the Club Satan is well named.

    Do the bad guys always get theirs in the end? Frequently, but not always. Dudley Smith looms large in LA, and though he eventually suffers a comeuppance, he’s officially celebrated as a hero of the LAPD. For that matter, some of the other official heroes leave much to be desired. Edmund Exley is a coward and a manipulator. OTOH when the time for the toughest personal decision comes, Exley chooses the side of “absolute justice” at tremendous personal cost. But remember that the protagonists in these books all do bad things, and starting with White Jazz I mean VERY BAD THINGS. Starting with White Jazz and running through the Underworld USA Trilogy we get nine POV characters, not counting people who appear when diaries are excerpted. All nine of those characters commit cold blooded murder, and in some cases it can be argued that murder isn’t the worst of their sins.

    I haven’t read Ellroy’s memoirs yet, but I’ve heard some of it on TV and read about it elsewhere. The violence against women and the need to resolve it seem to be burned into his psyche. Ellroy was born in 1948. While he was still young his parents divorced, and it was nasty. His mother won custody, with the father getting weekend visitation. The parents fought with each other through their child. Mother was stuck with the discipline, telling the boy to do his homework, go to bed at a reasonable hour, etc. Father was lax with discipline, more interested in bad-mouthing mother. Ellroy came to hate his mother (not a shock, she had the hard part of the parenting gig – the whole thing, really), and started wishing she was dead. When he was tem she was murdered. That fucked with his head. Not long after he got Jack Webb’s book The Badge, which featured sensational cases from the LAPD that were too graphic for TV. That was Ellroy’s first exposure to the Black Dahlia case. He transferred a lot of confused feelings about his mother to Elizabeth Short. Coupling that with his father’s irresponsible parenting and Ellroy was himself on a downward path.

    His father then died when Ellroy was about 18. He dropped out of high school, spent a brief period in the Army (IIRC) and then became, in his words, “a creep.” He drank heavily, did a lot of some kind of speed or another, started a Peeping Tom act and committed various “minor” non-violent criminal acts. (I gather that most of those were related to the Peeping Tom stuff.) Around age 29 Ellroy had some health and legal issues, and decided to clean up his act. He stopped drinking, stopped the other stuff, and started writing. Having been an avid reader as long as he could remember, and having been a true crime buff since age ten, life as a mystery writer seemed a likely choice. But from some of the things I’ve read concerning his two marriages and his current relationship, the perversity has never left him. Dead women OWN him, as he says, and he is one seriously fucked up individual, as I said. That all comes out in his writing.

    Read at your own risk.

  10. Icepick said,

    Dang, I tried to kill the italics, without success, obviously. Ah well.

    Reader, if you see this, I haven’t forgotten to call you back, I’ve just been very busy during the last few DAYS. (As opposed to the NIGHTS, where I’m trying to get out of the Ellroy Zone by bleeding into the ether.) I’ll try to get back to you in two or three days.

    And so much for getting to bed at a reasonable hour…..

  11. mockturtle said,

    Book addict that I am, I don’t read a lot of fiction. Partly because I’m woefully left-brain and partly because I love history and don’t like it fictionalized any more than human frailty dictates. But it seems to me that writers of fiction are trying to exorcise their personal demons in some way and it doesn’t take a degree in psychopathology to make the assumption that Ellroy is doing just that. His perps can perform all the atrocities he would like to have inflicted on his mother, for whatever reason, but not with impunity. So he can perform the brutality and then punish himself for doing it. Even so, it’s probably good reading and I might just give him a try after I finish my current WWII military history binge. ;-)

  12. karen said,

    Well, at least it says something about Ellory that he got his title, ~Blood’s a Rover~, from such an awesome sounding poem. I’ll stick to poetry.

  13. Icepick said,

    His perps can perform all the atrocities he would like to have inflicted on his mother, for whatever reason, but not with impunity.

    I don’t doubt that that is part of it. But as he got older he came to identify with his mother and loath his father. So he manages to get at it from all angles – attacker, victim, savior, etc. I’m pretty sure I’ve never personally known anyone that messed up, thank God….

    Which WWII books are you reading? I’m thinking of giving Churchill’s history another try. (I do realize that his account is rather biased, but that doesn’t negate its worth.)

  14. mockturtle said,

    Just finished]: ‘Patton, Montgomery & Rommel: Masters of War’, [she responded, avoiding the dreaded italics]. Prior to that, ‘Warlord:The Life of Winston Churchill at War’ and ‘A Genius for War’, a new bio of Patton. Currently reading ‘Ike and Monty:Generals at War’, which is a little lighter reading but still interesting. I have probably read every bio of Churchill ever written. And Patton. Haven’t read much about Monty or Rommel until recently but I intend to expand further into those fascinating characters. And hope to read something on just the Battle of the Bulge, having read so many conflicting accounts.

    I definitely go in streaks with my reading–‘The Brothers Karamazov’ was an intriguiging diversion. I spent quite a bit of time last year on the English Civil War, Cromwell, etc.

    While I find the ‘game’ of war of interest, I find the main players even more so. As a chess enthusiast, you probably can relate. The questions of what tactic/strategy did this or that general employ where, when and why, which battle philosphy did he follow, etc., etc. Of course, they don’t make wars like they used to. And I can’t imagine, having been an avid anti-war protester during the Viet Nam era, that I could find anything to admire there.

  15. roadtripp said,

    For insight into Ellroy’s demons read My Dark Places, the story of his mother’s unsolved murder and his cold case investigation of it. I read it years ago and was riveted by his writing and horrified and haunted by the subject. It’s still part of my library but I doubt I’ll ever bring myself to read it again.

  16. Icepick said,

    roadtripp, I’m saving that for next year. I’m not sure I can take any more Ellroy at the moment. Next year I’ll read that and some of the short stories and true crime stuff. And maybe those seven novels again. I’m a glutton for punishment!

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    […] class, despite the novel’s obvious literary, sociological and historical merits.  In a perceptive take on White Jazz, the critic Icepick […]

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    […] class, despite the novel’s obvious literary, sociological and historical merits.  In a perceptive take on White Jazz, the critic Icepick […]

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