James Ellroy has written some of the most eloquent and affecting prose in the crime genre – short, scattergun, staccato sentences pepper his pages filled with awesome alliteration that nevertheless somehow always constitutes ‘content over style’ rather than ‘style over content’. The movie, LA Confidential, starring the delectable Kim Basinger derives from a James Ellroy novel of the same name.
Ellroy is one of my three favourite established writers – part of a personal Trinity comprising Ellroy, Philip Roth and the Czech writer, Ivan Klima who collectively cemented my conviction (aged 25) that I definitely one day wanted to become “a writer” and that all else would henceforth be merely a ‘day job’. So, in a promised return to a (no doubt temporary!) purely literary focus for this blog I have decided to profile each of these three writers in turn.
James Ellroy began writing following a traumatic childhood during which his mother was murdered on a date by a sex crime killer who was never subsequently apprehended. Having consequently been brought up by his father (a man Ellroy describes as being out of his depth with the responsibilities of single parenthood), the teenage Ellroy descended into a life of homelessness, petty crime and juvenile delinquency. By his own admission he entered a period of emotional displacement during which he became, in his own words, “a house breaker, a panty sniffer and a peeping tom”. While he was homeless – living in squats or sleeping rough – the itinerant Ellroy ravenously devoured every crime novel in the noir genre (from the crudest pulp fiction to the finest literary examples). It was then that he decided to begin crafting his own work – thereby putting the rest to shame; the self-taught pupil eventually becoming the master. It was writing that saved Ellroy and gave him the power to turn his life around. Writing was his route to redemption. He lived for a time as a golf caddy (as accommodation was included with the job) and wrote his first novel (Brown’s Requiem) while holding down the caddying job.
A number of recurring themes can be found in Ellroy’s books – beguiling femme fatales (Ellroy’s obsession with women is legendary – and is set to be the entire theme of his next non-fiction book due for publication this very month), political corruption, the Faustian realpolitik compromises and connections between the CIA/FBI and the Mob in anti-Communist/anti-Castro pacts, dangerously simmering racial tensions in the bubbling US melting pot of the 1960s, Hollywood celebrity during its golden age and the darker side of Tinseltown (scandal rags, skin flicks, the casting couch) and, of course, murder most foul (including the unsolved Black Dahlia case). Well known real-life figures constantly recur as characters in Ellroy’s books – including Frank Sinatra, Johnny Stompanato, Sal Mineo, Sonny Liston, Private Eye Fred Otash, Sam Giancana, Howard Hughes, J Edgar Hoover, JFK, Martin Luther King – all given much more than one dimensional walk-on parts. Then there are Ellroy’s own characters – Pete Bondurant, Lloyd Hopkins, Buzz Meeks – larger than life compromised souls who constantly walk the thin line between hero and anti-hero.
Ellroy has now written some 18 published books – enough to have an oeuvre that is usually divided as follows: The Early Works (Brown’s Requiem, Clandestine, Silent Terror), The Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy (Blood On The Moon, Because The Night, Suicide Hill), The LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz), The Underworld USA Trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s A Rover), Short Stories (Dick Contino’s Blues), Collections (Crime Wave) and Non-Fiction (Destination: Morgue, My Dark Places and The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit Of Women). The last two books mentioned are autobiographies – with The Hilliker Curse due for release in 8 days’ time. (I shall definitely be getting a hardback First Edition pronto!)
If you are already an Ellroy fan then I am preaching to the converted. However, if you don’t yet know Ellroy I would recommend (as regards his fiction) starting with either The Black Dahlia or LA Confidential – both of which can be read quite easily as standalone books (and both of which later became Hollywood movies – but do read the novels before seeing the films!) You can then progress to the Underworld USA Trilogy – to experience the full-on, punchy, in-your-face alliterative style that Ellroy (the self-titled “Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction”) eventually developed. However, I remain convinced that Ellroy’s very best piece of writing (to date) is in fact his autobiography, My Dark Places. Together with an ex-PI, Bill Stoner, Ellroy gained access to the cold case files concerning his mother’s murder and reinvestigated the case – weaving into this narrative his entire autobiography; a self-analysis so candid, honest and psychologically insightful that (coupled with the unique eloquence of Ellroy’s trademark idiolect) is undoubtedly the most compelling autobiography I have ever read.
James Ellroy will soon be the subject of a massive publicity drive surrounding the imminent release of The Hilliker Curse – and will unquestioningly be a better spokesman for his own motivations, obsessions, idiosyncrasies, triumphs and nadirs than I can be on this humble blog. So I’ll leave out the stuff about his obsession with LA, his time living in Kansas City, his pet Bull Terriers, his mental breakdown and his all-consuming passion for women, women, women and more women! No doubt you’ll find out all of that stuff for yourself! However, I will be back at some point with a review of The Hilliker Curse on this blog. And, next time – literature lovers! – it’ll be Philip Roth who gets the profile treatment.