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James Ellroy

Discussion in 'Crime Fiction, Thrillers, & Mysteries' started by Toadal, Dec 1, 2004.

  1. Toadal

    Toadal kickbox

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    Frankly, James Ellroy is God. He is without doubt the world's best living crime author, and I'd wager that he'd the best crime writer ever. Fascinating, if horrifying, life, too: his mother was murdered when James was ten, a crime that has gone unsolved. He then lived with his father, a man who did the odd bit of accounting for Hollywood stars, was obsessed with sex and was hung like a donkey. Apparently. Anyway, James pretended to be a Nazi at his largely Jewish school, got kicked out, joined the army, got a dishonourable discharge (what an ungainly phrase), his dad died, James lived on the streets, sleeping in squats and parks, getting high by swallowing the swabs in nasal inhalers, drinking far too much, breaking into houses and stealing women's underwear. All through his life as a creep (as he describes it) he was reading crime fiction, watching crime shows. He always knew he would be a writer, but just couldn't be bothered trying. In the end, health problems made him kick the drink and the swabs, get a job and a flat and start writing.

    Here's a quick rundown of his work.

    Brown's Requiem (1981) - His first novel, written and published while he was still working as a golf caddy. I haven't read this. I feel like I ought to, if I want to be a true Ellroy-phile.

    Clandestine (1982) - I believe this was Ellroy's first attempt to write about his mother's murder. I haven't read it. See above.

    Lloyd Hopkins series: Blood on the Moon (1983), Because the Night (1984), Suicide Hill (1986) - these are the earliest of his books that I have read. Available in a handy omnibus format, they are Ellroy-like in their pretty graphic violence, and the high regard he holds women in is evident too, which comes out more forcefully in later books. However. Ellroy acknowledges the influence of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, and much of the serial-killer type content in a couple of these doesn't really ring true: because, of course, it never does. Ellroy is much, much better when fictionalising real life events and characters.

    Silent Terror, known as Killer on the Road in the States (1986) - I have this in my to be read pile. I don't think it is amoung his strongest work, being his first real attempt at autobiography in his fiction. It's a first person serial-killer thing. I'll let you know when I have read it.

    The Black Dahlia (1987) - Ellroy's first classic, and the first book in the LA Quartet. He had for many years closely aligned the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short with that of his mother, and this book is his attempt at cahtharsis. It makes excellent use of some of the modernist elements of Ellroy's style, notably the insertion of (fictional) newspaper clippings and police reports, often following one by one describing the same events, so with each one you build up a bigger picture of what is going on. It's gruesome, gripping and the book where he really came into his own.

    The Big Nowhere (1988) - The first book to feature Dudley Smith (edit: just realised this is a lie, he appears in Clandestine, apparently), though here only in very much a background role. The storyline is pretty bizaare, and unpleasant, involving communists, gay cops, an actor with a severely nacissistic streak, police corruption, drug deals and all sorts else besides. It's the real start of Ellroy's fiendishly complicated plotlines. Trouble is, much of the story is taken up with the hunt for a serial killer, and so I found it therefore pretty unsatisfactory in itself. It is essential reading, however, if only because it sets up the work of genius that is

    LA Confidential (1990) - The book that really set Ellroy apart from anyone else writing crime fiction, anywhere, anytime, as far as I am concerned. The brutality, darkness and seediness that infests the novel grips the reader in. In this book Ellroy also starts really developing his style, the scattergun use of clipped sentences, one word sentences, one word paragraphs. Alliteration, too - sometimes you feel you are reading a scandal rag like those lampooned by 'Hush-Hush'. Ellroy claims he writes about men better than anyone else on the planet, and he has a point. Probably his most famous book, what with Curtis Hanson's film being released to tumultous praise in 1997. The film is brilliant, the book shits on the film from a great height. It has some good jokes, too.

    White Jazz (1992) - Have only read this once, a couple of years ago. It's widely considered Ellroy's best, even better than LA.... I think it requires a re-read from me. Dave Klein, an LAPD detective, gets embroiled in the Dudley Smith / Ed Exley feud. The twists and movements and jumps in perspective come one after the other, and it is often hard to know who is on who's side at any one time. I think that's the intention, though. The Ellroy site says this: "When his editor asked Ellroy to shorten his 900 page work to 350, Ellroy did so by eliminating the verbs. Stylistically, it's the strangest prose Ellroy's written." Too right. The last of the LA Quartet.

    American Tabloid (1994) - The start of Ellroy's move away from 'straight' crime fiction and into a genre busting historical/noir/crime/politics thing he calls the 'Underworld USA' trilogy. This is brilliant, my second fave Ellroy and features his greatest character, Pete Bondurant. Telling the story of JFK's assasination, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco from the viewpoint of the Mob, the FBI and the political establishment. I guess it might put people off - 'duh, another JFK conspiracy book' but it's well worth reading for the other bits, which make up 90% of the narrative. Indispensible reading.

    Dick Contino's Blues and Other Stories (1994) - This is a collection of short stories centered on the characters in the LA Quartet. I haven't read this yet, but own it and am looking forward to it. I believe it is known as Hollywood Nocturne in the US.

    My Dark Places (1996) - Shocking. Part true crime, part memoir, this book details the murder of Ellroy's mother, the failed police investigation, his life subsequent to that, and his own attempt to solve the crime. He fails in that, but the book is a triumph. I've read some reviews which claim the descriptions of police procedure drag, but they must be wimps: Ellroy's momentum carries you through. What shocks is Ellroy's candour, especially about his own feelings and failings. Excellent.

    Crime Wave (1999) - A collection of Ellroy's true crime (mostly) pieces from GQ. I don't have this, so can't comment, though I think someone might have mentioned it disparagingly to me in the past. Ellroy does have something of a fetish for documenting routine police procedures, which could get irritating, I guess. I'll have to wait and see.

    The Cold Six Thousand (2001) - This was Ellroy's first full length fiction for five years, and the follow-up to American Tabloid, and is a beast. Long, inpenetrable, complicated and violent, it is brilliant. Some reviewers attacked it's style, which I'll admit is an acquired taste, but their inability to stick with it shows what a lily livered bunch of geeks they must be. The story mesmerises you - you haven't a clue what is going on half the time, but who cares?! It's a wild ride, and Ellroy treats his most endearing character (the afore-mentioned Bondurant) well and generally it ends pretty satisfactorilly for the reader, if not the protagonists, which makes forn a nice change.

    Destination: MORGUE! (2004) - Another collection of different bits of prose, I'm not sure if some of the essays have been published elsewhere or not - there aren't any acknowledgements. Covering true crime, boxing and autobiographical pieces, as well as a three part novella, Ellroy is again at his most confessional, and it is electric stuff. Ellroy's style is of course heavily stylised - he writes like no one else - and this applies itself to his non-fiction as it does his fiction.

    The most startling thing, though, is when the two collide. Early in the book, Ellroy discusses the LAPD Cold Case team, two members of which are Rick Jackon and Dave Lambkin. In the novella that closes the book, the 'hero' is called, er, Rick Jensen. His mate is Dave Slatkin - and they work on the Cold Case team. They also end up doing some pretty unpleasant stuff, and Jensen certainly harbours some pretty unpleasant prejudices. Even though all Ellroy's recent books are shot through with real-life characters, they usually are so distant that it makes no difference. But having a read a sympathetic portrayal of these men earlier in the same book, it makes for pretty weird reading.

    Enjoyable, though. The tale of Jensen and his on-off affair with actress Donna Donahue is at the same time unreal and super-realistic. They only seem to get together when one of them is in danger and it usually ends with Donahue killing someone. Ahum. But it is a really entertaining romp, and well worth reading for both Ellroy completists and the casual reader.

    Of the non-fiction, the pick is certainly the two autobiogrpahical essays, "Where I get my Weird Shit" and "My Life as a Creep". They are as horrifying and amusing as their titles suggest. Ellroy's life, as I mentioned above is a fascinating one and I still can't believe how he got from there to here. But thank God he did.



    The follow up to The Cold Six Thousand and the last of 'Underworld USA' is putatively titled Police Gazette and should be published towards the end of 2005. I can't wait. After that, Ellroy is moving onto the 1920s. The man just doesn't stop.
     
  2. lenny nero

    lenny nero New Member

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    I've read all of his work and the only one that disappointed me was Killer On the Road. Probably because it wasn't written in his usual prose. He's been on an incredible run since The Black Dahlia, every book just keeps getting better, it's just incredible, I hope he keeps it up forever.
     
  3. lenny nero

    lenny nero New Member

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    Finally! Due in Sept:

    aecx.images_amazon.com_images_I_51xbZEuqXEL._SL500_AA240_.jpg

    I can't believe it's been 8 years since The Cold Six Thousand. This is my most anticipated book of the year. I can't wait.
     
  4. Peder

    Peder Well-Known Member

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    Well, add another whole bunch to the buy list! Although I have read The Black Dahlia. So that's a start.
    It happened during my time and I remember the tabloid coverage, so I've been keeping a casual eye on the multiple books about it by now, each with their own theory.

    And many, many thanks for the Ellroy rundown.
    Sincerely.
    :flowers:
     
  5. lenny nero

    lenny nero New Member

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    Interview from the new Rolling Stone

    James Ellroy's American Apocalypse

    The master of modern noir has completed an epic secret history of America - a trilogy so dark that he lost his mind writing it

    SEAN WOODS

    Posted Oct 06, 2009 4:51 PM

     
  6. lenny nero

    lenny nero New Member

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    Bonus Interview

    Inside the Dark Mind of James Ellroy

    The master of modern noir on L.A., racism and ambivalence.

     
  7. velocipede2288

    velocipede2288 New Member

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    Thanks Toadal for the list. I shall have to look out for him. He is one I have never read.
     
  8. 753C

    753C Active Member

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    Just starting

    I just started The Black Dahlia based partly on this thread and partly on my enjoyment of the movie "LA Confidential".
    So far... Wow. The pacing and language are superb. I have already become engrossed. This will be a quick read for me.
    Thanks for the reviews.
     
  9. K M Britt

    K M Britt New Member

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    Thank you for the list.
     
  10. 753C

    753C Active Member

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    Dahlia

    Just finished the Black Dahlia. I am a new James Ellroy fan.
    The pacing is relentless and the story itself is unapologetically brutal. Ellroy's post war LA is no candy land - full of wretched drug addicts, slimy politics and sociopathic police officers. The story and subplots are unveiled at a blinding pace with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Officer Bleichert's descent into obsession is frighteningly believable. Not for the fainthearted.

    Note to LannyNero: You are two for two with me. I read Dan Simmon's "The Terror" earlier this year based on one of your postings. I enjoyed that a great deal as well. Keep em coming!
     
  11. lenny nero

    lenny nero New Member

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    Glad you enjoyed it! The L.A. Quartet gets better with each book, so you've got a lot to look forward to. You should also try to find the film James Ellroy's Feast of Death, where you see him and his LAPD detective friends sit down for dinner and work thru the Dahlia case. Fascinating stuff.

    Let me know what you think of The Big Nowhere when you get done. You're gonna love his portrayal of Howard Hughes.
     
  12. 753C

    753C Active Member

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    White Jazz

    Just finished White Jazz. I got absorbed despite the fact that I hated the prose style for the first half of the book. It was written in a sort of clipped, intense, no frills, quasi stream of consciousness style that I did not think I was going to be able to take. I stuck with it and am very pleased that I did. I even became acclimated to the writing style somewhere near the middle.
    Besides all that, the plot was outstanding. The characters were richly drawn despite the minimal use of description. Really great overall. I preferred the Black Dahlia, but this one is also a winner in my book. I hope the library gets the rest of the quartet in soon or I may have to break down and buy them.
     
  13. eldog

    eldog New Member

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    I am a massive Ellroy fan although I think that he is a bit of a nutter! My only complaint is that his later novels are especially thick. Sadly with my reading speed it can take quite some time to get through one of those babies!
     
  14. lenny nero

    lenny nero New Member

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    That clipped style of prose is how he's written every novel since then. I don't believe his non fiction is written that way.
     
  15. velocipede2288

    velocipede2288 New Member

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    Received in the post today. Looking forward to reading them.The Black Dahlia and, L.A. Confidential.
     
  16. 753C

    753C Active Member

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    My library didn't have this one, but Hughes was sort of a fringe character in White Jazz. He didn't seem too endearing............
    Come to think of it no one is very likeable in either of these stories. Even the "good guys". Ellroy seems to hold a dim view of humanity in general, at least in his stories. It makes for excellent reading though. :)
     
  17. lenny nero

    lenny nero New Member

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    Hughes has a substantial role in The Big Nowhere. He's also in Blood's a Rover in more of a fringe role.
     
  18. mmyap

    mmyap Member

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    I just started Black Dahlia last night and I'm loving it. I've never read an Ellroy novel before and I'm not quite sure why. It certainly isn't because I hadn't heard of him. Oh well. Time to get caught up.
     
  19. velocipede2288

    velocipede2288 New Member

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    Started reading L.A. Confidential. And found it hard going. Difficult to follow the disjointed sentences and American and cop slang.If I hadn't seen the film, I wouldn't know what was happening.So gave up at around 30 pages.
    Back to Ian Rankin and Collin Dextor for me.
     
  20. chiangmaifalcon

    chiangmaifalcon New Member

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    I used to love his novels, but haven't read any in quite a while. I also read his life story so understand sort of why he has such a negative viewpoint. I think he is an excellent writer, but do not agree he is the best crime writer around. My main complaint is that, having worked in American law enforcement for 25 years, the cops are not generally as bad as Ellroy makes them out to be. The bad cops are the exception and not the rule.
     

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