Mr. Campbell, who cares? Even if this were true, who cares? This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here. (Matthew Weiner, Mad Men)
Beginning with The Black Dahlia, Ellroy’s subject has been those men and those stories. Even before then, he had written crime novels that intersect with history; his Lloyd Hopkins trilogy (Blood on the Moon, Because the Night, Suicide Hill) begins with the Watts riots of 1964 and they shape Hopkins’ character and outlook. From Dahlia to his most recent novel (Perfidia), Ellroy has attempted an alternate history of America’s wartime and postwar expansion, an epic of how power gets acquired, maintained, and defended. His work is on the scale of Thomas Pynchon’s saga of the Traverses (Against the Day and Vineland, with guest appearances in Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice) or William Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series, although Ellroy may actually be more ambitious than both of them. His work is violent, racist, often disgusting; his goal from the beginning was to “celebrate bad men doing bad things in the name of authority. . .to exalt shitbird cops out to fuck the disenfranchised.” His work is also deeply moral, and believable; like all great writers, he creates his own world through sheer imaginative force. His work may also be more right about America than anyone else’s.
One of those distinct challenges and rewards of reading Ellroy is watching how his values and talents have progressed over time. He may well be the most ambitious American author currently working; each novel doesn’t so much follow from the previous one as it tries to supersede it. His moral sense wasn’t there at the beginning, it’s developed through the novels and become something that’s as necessarily unique as his language. (Like all great artists, he’s continued down his mistaken path.) By his own description and by sales, The Black Dahlia (1987) was his breakthrough work, his attempt to reconcile the twin obsessions of his life: the murder of his mother and the murder of Elizabeth Short, the Dahlia. Never mind the dedication or the epigraph, the first line applies equally to both women: “I never knew her in life.” (Authors are already a pretty darn obsessive group, and few are obsessed as Ellroy, and few write about obsession as well.) His previous work was competent and almost interesting; he had a strong grip on police procedure but none of it could be called memorable until Dahlia. Dahlia and the three novels that follow it (The Big Nowhere, L. A. Confidential, and White Jazz) comprise the (first) L. A. Quartet and cover the years 1947 to 1958. Ellroy followed that with the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover) which has a larger setting and covers 1958 to 1972. Last year’s Perfidia returns to L. A. in December 1941; he has said it is the first novel of the Second L. A. Quartet, which will take characters from all the previous novels and set them in the historical period 1941-1947.
Almost all of the shitbird-cops characters are racists, and Ellroy’s language is racist too, also misogynist and homophobic. (Content warning: this paragraph contains said language, and it will occasionally return in this essay.) This cannot be ignored, nor can it be written off as irony, so often used to mean “well this author looks like they’re saying something hateful but I know they really agree with my values.” I picked these passages almost at random: “A nigger coughing glass. A pachuco minus some fingers” from White Jazz; “Wetbacks hate jigs. Crop men hate jigs. That jig better haul” from The Cold Six Thousand; “spics,” “nigger whores,” “nigger drag queens,” on and on, and this isn’t even close to the impact of reading literally thousands of pages of this language. Minor characters–the kind who appear in one or two scenes–speak in dialect that would just about work in Amos ‘n’ Andy; there are scenes of incredible violence directed against black people, usually suspects, hit with saps, fists, rubber hoses. Ellroy takes the language and the attitudes of the time of noir and amplifies both to a point both disgusting and unforgettable. He crafts his language and scenery to the point where the violence and hatred of his characters has an impact on us, and refuses to make his characters and his world less ugly than they are. What becomes clear, reading Ellroy on a large scale, is how this kind of horror is necessary for what he’s doing. I’ll return to this point near the end here.
The acceptance, even embrace, of characters who are by contemporary Enlightened standards villains comes across as the first quality of Ellroy’s writing, if not the defining one. He cares only about victimizers, never victims; the racist cops who beat or even kill suspects, who orchestrate enormous criminal conspiracies, the mob bosses, assassins, and rogue agents (“rogue authoritarians” in the words of a character from Blood’s): all these are Ellroy’s protagonists, and he presents them not only without judgment but with real enthusiasm. Of the protagonist of White Jazz, he has said “Dave ‘The Enforcer’ Klein may be the most unredeemed and unredeemable character I’ve ever created, so naturally I love him the most.” He does; identifying with and loving these characters comes as naturally to him as metaphysics does to Werner Herzog. That allows him to have insights into them that no one who approached them from a stance of condemnation could.
Ellroy needs these characters for the history he creates; he is a truly epic writer, attempting books that have the scale of myth and he needs mythic characters to bring that off. At his best, though, he never grandstands. There are some lapses, especially with his shorter pieces, which are usually godawful, Ellroy descending into self-parody. (A warning sign: whenever Ellroy goes bad, he starts alliterating all over the place.) The characters succeed because they’re large-scale, but always believable. You may not know an Ellroy character (and you may be thankful for that) but you always why they act as they do. They are also quite distinct from each other; I can’t think of another writer who has so many variations on the tough guy. (Andrew Vachss, to pick an example, doesn’t do so well on this point.)
What distinguishes Ellroy from some contemporary writers who’ve done similar things is a real sense of morality. In his first autobiographical book, My Dark Places, he recounts growing up reading true-crime stories (especially Jack Webb’s The Badge) and detective fiction (blitzing through the collected Ross MacDonald) and finding “narrative was my moral language.” Unlike Bret Easton Ellis, Ellroy’s universe operates under the moral law of “actions have consequences.” (Ellis tries to render a world where nothing anyone does matters, which can be powerful but doesn’t do much to keep the reader going. He’s been most successful with this in the short story collection The Informers and the novel Glamorama, but that’s another essay.) Ellroy’s novels have historical power because they show a world shaped by human action, not by Fate or by God. Actions have consequences, and some of those consequences are the world we live in. His moral universe may be far from the one we think we live in, but it has its own integrity to it. Ellroy’s work will endure because his characters suffer, triumph, and die not because a contemporary audience thinks they should, but because of what they do. That makes his characters always sympathetic, sometimes monstrously so. More than any other work, The Shield picked up Ellroy’s moral universe and ran with it, and it’s just as challenging and rewarding to watch as Ellroy is to read.
I’ll take a moment to note that the characters aren’t all bad. A minor character who we first meet in The Black Dahlia and continues through L. A. Confidential is Detective Russ Millard; he dies by heart attack in the latter book after becoming a fall guy. He has his most prominent role in the first book, and he’s something unusual in Ellroy’s work: the Good Detective. Ellroy writes him as sympathetic, and more importantly, sympathizing; he keeps a portrait of the Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, in his office and concludes scenes by saluting it and saying “we’re making progress, dear.” He’s not a victim of what homicide detectives call Laura syndrome; he’s not in love with her, he simply feels a sense of personal rather than institutional loyalty to her. Ellroy’s world shows the importance of medieval values in modern institutions, and homicide detectives have an almost religious role: the speakers for the dead.
Ellroy’s finest portrayal of the Good Detective is in his memoir, My Dark Places. Written just after American Tabloid, it has that novel’s specific cadences and tells a big chunk of Ellroy’s story and his search for his mother’s killer. He was assisted by Detective Bill Stoner (Ellroy dedicated The Cold Six Thousand to him), and Ellroy devotes an entire part of the book to his life before he meets Ellroy. A great exchange in that meeting: “Stoner flashed a copy of my book White Jazz. He asked me why all the cops were extortionists and perverts. I said good cops made for bad fiction.” Ellroy writes about Stoner’s life and times with a great deal of care, catching the same compassion that he wrote in the fictional Millard.
Ellroy’s Stoner also reflects on the transformation of the LAPD and its role from the 1960s through the 1990s: “The system worked because criminal numbers were far short of stratospheric and most criminals did not employ violence. . . .The system worked because pre-breakdown jail time was doable.” As the homicides increase and Stoner learns about why they happen (“Stoner learned that men killed women because the world ignored and condoned it”), we can understand how police transform into occupying armies. Like the best storytellers, we can empathize without losing any judgment at all. Ellroy’s authoritarianism has reason underlying it, and it’s one more aspect of his morality. In the L. A. Quartet, Ellroy doesn’t show Good vs. Evil but plays off the Lawful Evil of the authoritarians against the Chaotic Evil of the killers–every novel in the Quartet has both. In a recurring theme, it’s some act by the authoritarians that gives rise to the killers, something that’s especially clear in L. A. Confidential and White Jazz. A classical thinker, Ellroy understands that law enforcement relies on society and can’t be a means to fix it; a society that falls apart can never be successfully policed. Stoner is a fascinating transitional character in Ellroy’s work, because he lives out of the era of the L. A. Quartet into the world that it made–Ellroy’s search for his mother’s killer coincides with the O. J. Simpson trial.
My Dark Places works as a great Gateway to Ellroy; it has the language, the obsessions, and the morality on clear display. Another Gateway is his commentary on Zodiac, available on the Special Edition. The second commentary track has two conversations, spliced together: one with Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal and the other with Ellroy, writer James Vanderbilt, and producer Brad Fischer. Ellroy chimes in right away, calling it “one of the five or six best crime films ever made” (and I endorse this) and he’s continually entertaining and insightful all the way through. (“Given your obsession with crime, I’m surprised you didn’t know about this case.” “I was booooooombed out of my fuckin’ goooooooooourd.”) Zodiac emphasizes the process of detective work (“the slow accretion of detail”) as much as an Ellroy novel, and has almost as many blind alleys. When Robert Graysmith starts researching the case, Ellroy notes how many cases get solved and killers get caught that way, not by finding something new but seeing something old. That happens in a lot of Ellroy’s novels, and his almost-sung phrase “name’s in the file!” on the commentary has always stuck with me.
SPOILERS for pretty much every Ellroy novel to follow. Readers who wish to follow the argument but remain unspoiled can skip this section.
The Black Dahlia belongs in the same category as A. I. or The Last Temptation of Christ or Husbands and Wives, messy works that the author had to make. Art can suffer by becoming lifeless when creators get too far away from their own psyches, and Ellroy left his deeply fucked-up self on display for everyone to see in this book. (David Cronenberg did much the same thing in The Brood.) Dahlia is a Gothic procedural to match the horror of Elizabeth Short’s murder: chopped in half, eviscerated, and cut with a Joker (actually The Man Who Laughs, if we wanna be historically accurate) smile. Ellroy uses a classic crime-novel formula where the search for the killer turns up gobs of backstory, revealed near the end–all the L. A. Quartet novels will have that. Here we have incestuous relationships, a chamber of horrors, and a deeply broken family ruled by a Noah Cross-like patriarch as part of that story.
All this takes place against a backdrop of the growth of postwar Los Angeles and the LAPD. Ads for cheap housing form a recurring motif in the scenery and part of the backstory; before we even get to Short’s corpse, the two main characters get into a boxing match in support of an LAPD bond measure; the renovation of the Hollywoodland sign forms the literal backdrop to some of the most important action; and of course the publicity around the Dahlia case becomes part of the story. Ellroy appropriates part of L. A.’s myth here (the case was at least as important to the L. A. of the 1940s as the O. J. Simpson trial was to the 1990s) and begins the process of writing his own urban history.
Dahlia isn’t fully successful at this. Written in the first person, it necessarily lets a lot happen secondhand, although there is some Good Soldier-like reanalysis and interpretation of events. Mostly, it’s just not as broad, original, or historical as Ellroy would become; in particular his language is too much a generic noirspeak. The next L. A. Quartet novel, The Big Nowhere, moves the action to 1950 and places the hunt for Communists in the film industry as the central historical events–although the growth of L. A. continues. (Also playing a key role here: the Zoot Suit riots of WW2, and the Sleepy Lagoon murder.) Ellroy broadens the historical scope here, the cast of characters, and the action, and that gave him the discipline he needed to make something less personal and more unique. He also introduces perhaps his best character, but more on him soon.
The Big Nowhere has three main characters: Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Danny Upshaw (the LAPD/Sheriff’s Department rivalry is another good historical touch here), Captain Mal Considine (who has a crucial WW2 backstory), and former cop and bagman to Howard Hughes, Buzz Meeks. Beginning here, a lot of Ellroy’s novels feature a trio of protagonists. In addition to making the plot more complicated by giving all sorts of collisions for the three to have, this allows Ellroy to write some great endings. Epic characters often have fated endings, but the advantage of having three of them is that you can have three different endings, all of which feel necessary.
As in Dahlia, Ellroy comes up with a horror-novel killer, the Wolverine (no not that one) but he pays more attention here to the rest of the action, not just the Communist witch-hunt plot but a role for gangster Mickey Cohen too. (Cohen gets to deliver one of the very best lines of dialogue in all Ellroy: “Send her back to me and I will not harm a hair on her head and I will not do you slow.”) That moves The Big Nowhere closer to the mythic history of L. A. and farther away from horror. Ellroy’s sense of character got better here too; Danny Upshaw is smart, impulsive, and a self-closeted gay man, and it’s the last one that will undo him. He’s the most realistic Ellroy character yet.
Superficially, L. A. Confidential repeats the formula (three rogue cops + L. A. history + psycho killer = 500 or so badass pages) of The Big Nowhere but Ellroy goes farther with every aspect of it and breaks through to something geniunely new and compelling. First, he drops any kind of conventional sympathy for his cops. Upshaw was a man in over his head, Considine was motivated by love for his adopted son, and only Meeks was a true rogue. Here, all three cops–Bud White the thug, Jack Vincennes the celebrity, and Ed Exley the professional–kill, do drugs, deal drugs, blackmail, beat men and women, or various combinations of the above. All three have painful backstories but that never mitigates what they do. For example, White’s mother was beaten by his father and he watched his father kill her (in one of the most stark, horrifying passages in all Ellroy); a lesser writer would White lose control of himself whenever he beats up people or imagine that they’re really his father, but that never happens here. All three become what they chose to become, and all three live with it. These are Ellroy’s first real “shitbird cops,” and more than any other reason, they’re why L. A. Confidential is his first great novel.
Second, Ellroy broadens his historical scope. The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere both take place over months (there is a fair amount of backstory in Dahlia, though), while L. A. Confidential covers almost an entire decade, 1950 to 1958. It’s a true epic of postwar L. A., including real-life events such as the Bloody Christmas scandal, the development of the freeway system, the opening of Disneyland, Mickey Cohen’s release from prison, the rise of scandal magazines, and the killing of Johnny Stompanato. Ellroy debuts here interstitial pseudodocumentary material: news clippings, LAPD fitness reports, headlines, all of which change the feel of L. A. Confidential from a story taking place alongside history to a story in history. (He will include this kind of material in every subsequent novel.) Ellroy doesn’t just use these events as markers of a particular time, but brings them all together in a stunningly complex plot.
By taking the surface events of history and telling a new story behind them, Ellroy creates his own origin myth of modern L. A. and the LAPD. (Since so many police departments adapted the LAPD’s at-least-semi-military occupation approach to policing, the origin of the LAPD is also the origin of contemporary American cities.) L. A. Confidential serves as the necessary counterweight to Kevin Starr’s Americans and the California Dream series, Starr’s exhaustive, brilliant, and deeply optimistic story of how California was created, almost as an act of will, out of the imaginations of a few great men and women. As a historian (he was in fact California’s state historian), Starr necessarily limited himself to recorded and documented facts, where Ellroy sometimes feels like he threw everything he knew about the 1950s, fact, story, and rumor, into L. A. Confidential. Ellroy’s L. A. is much like Starr’s in Material Dreams (the third volume of the series), but Ellroy recognizes a greater range of dreams than Starr does. Near the end, Raymond Dieterling (aka Legally Not Walt Disney) says to Ed Exley “Pierce’s dreams were twisted, mine were kind and good. Your father’s dreams were ruthless–as I suspect yours are.” Ellroy understands that Los Angeles is a product of all of those dreams.
In our culture, the dreams of postwar Los Angeles get collectively called noir. This genre hit at a particular historical moment, the postwar expansion of America, and not by accident. For a generation that had come through the realities of war and depression, the sudden creation of wealth and stability didn’t feel quite as real. So much noir was about losing all that stability in a single decision, a single night, a single thing from the past that the male protagonist thought was buried. (I’m writing here only about the reception of noir; the making of it was also specific to the historical moment, as German émigrés came to L. A. and brought Expressionism in with them. Thanks to John Bruni for reminding me of this point.) In L. A. Confidential, Ellroy makes that subtext the text, locating the story of three noir protagonists at the birth of the noir world.
The third achievement of L. A. Confidential is its language, a new, rhythmic version of noirspeak, as essential and elemental as David Mamet’s Spartan. Like so many artistic breakthroughs, this came about because of technical necessity: Ellroy said that the outline alone for the novel came in at over a thousand pages, and that he’d never be able to turn in a manuscript of readable length unless he either cut out events or compressed the language. Ellroy’s new style is clipped, recognizably noir, wildly energetic, and lets us learn many things in a few words (I chose the following passage nearly at random):
Ellis Loew wasn’t told–he figured he just got lucky. Dot sent Marvell down to Tijuana, all expenses paid–skim of the Woman’s Jail budget. McPherson lost his wife and his job; his statch rape charged was dismissed–Marvell couldn’t be located. Something snapped inside the Bigggg V–
The snap: one shitty favor over the line. The reason: Dot Rothstein in the ambulance October ‘47–she knew, Dudley probably knew. If they knew, the game had to be played so the rest of the world wouldn’t know–so Karen wouldn’t.
In ninety words, four major characters, three minor ones, and two stories all link up and go in potentially new directions. The language itself creates urgency and raises the pressure on all the characters and most of all focuses our attention on the action. Paring things down like this gives him advantages over other novelists in the genre: if you read crime fiction, as Miller has noted, you’re gonna read a lot of late-novel exposition scenes, what he calls “the reveal flip-back.” I’ve never read one as taut or exciting as the eight pages where Exley, White, and Vincennes finally pool all they know and figure out 85% of the story. Part of the success of the scene is the language and part of it is that Ellroy gets everyone’s voice and action exactly right. It’s still an action scene about three characters advancing different agendas.
Ellroy’s eloquence doesn’t hold at the same level for all of L. A. Confidential; it was his first excursion into this style, and clearly a work-in-progress. He perfects it, though, in the final two pages, fierce and merciless and moving, with an exact goodbye line to Ed Exley (“Some men get the world, some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona. You’re in with the former, but my God I don’t envy you the blood on your conscience”) and one of the best ending lines I know, a mourning and a judgment together: “Gold stars. Alone with his dead.”
My first contact with the world of Ellroy was the film of L. A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson and written by Hanson and Brian Helgeland. It seems to be a favorite of many readers of the Solute–qjtbailey ranked it and Heat as the two great 1990s crime films and I wholly agree. Hanson and his team created a work that had a lot of Ellroy’s style but was also something distinct; where Ellroy took noir and streamlined it to create something modern, Hanson takes Ellroy back into the past, making something that could feel like it’s part of the 1950s, yet done in lush contemporary colors. Before filming, Kevin Spacey asked Hanson “if this film was made in the period it was set, who would play Jack Vincennes?” and Hanson answered “Dean Martin”; in production, Hanson carefully included both incandescent and fluorescent lights in the interiors, a historically accurate way of capturing two times. That kind of doubling, that feeling of something that belongs to two periods, goes all through the movie, never more so than when Exley mistakes Lana Turner for a Lana Turner lookalike. (One too few levels of illusion, that.)
Hanson and Helgeland scored an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, and it’s the rare Oscar I agree with. They wrote not just a great screenplay but a great adaptation, following the kill-your-darlings rule and throwing out almost the entire second half of the novel and stripping the story down to a clear line of action. (Like Watchmen, what’s left has maybe one quarter of the complexity of the source, which is still three times the complexity of most movies.) What made it work, more than anything, is an absolute grip on the characters: if this isn’t the same story as the novel, these are absolutely the same characters, never more so than when Dudley Smith, in a bathrobe, whips around and fires a shot right into Vincennes’ heart.
When Ellroy receives his due as a writer, Smith will also be recognized as one of the great, archetypal characters in American fiction, on par with Melville’s Ahab, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and Kubrick/Southern/Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove. Like them–like all archetypes–he embodies a particular time and place, and in The Big Nowhere, L. A. Confidential, and White Jazz he is the living incarnation of “containment,” that post-WW2 principle of taking whatever threatened white suburban America and separating it, isolating it, never defeating it, often profiting off of it. “It” could be communism, blacks, jazz, drugs, prostitution, homosexuality, or just sexuality, and the act of containment was what defined postwar white America. Smith was the most ruthless enforcer of that borderline; in White Jazz, Dave Klein says “He’s brilliant and obsessed with order. He’s cruel. It’s occurred to me a few times that he’s capable of anything,” but maybe the best description comes from Mickey Cohen in L. A. Confidential:
“Not even Hitler is capable of such things. Who could be so brainy and so ruthless?”
White said, “Dudley Smith.”
“Oh Jesus Christ. Him I could believe.”
Smith is involved in almost every master crime and plan in the novels he’s in, from the Sleepy Hollow killings to the downfall of Mickey Cohen to heroin and prostitution and pornography. He’s at all times calm, at all times sure of himself, and in his own way incorruptible: like the Party in 1984, he is “not interested in wealth or long life or happiness, only power, pure power,” dominating everyone around him, family members and colleagues alike. Sexually, he’s a voyeur: “I view it as a means to touch compelling filth without succumbing to it.” He becomes a better character the farther Ellroy goes in the Quartet, because this kind of archetype belongs to myth, not novels; getting Dudley right means getting the few perfect details about him down, not giving him depth. In L. A. Confidential the movie, James Cromwell looked nothing like Ellroy’s description of Dudley and nailed the performance; his no-warning execution of Vincennes implied a lifetime’s brutality behind it.
Dudley’s particular strain of evil can only grow in an organization. He resembles Chinatown’s Noah Cross a bit (to take his own line: at the right moment, Cross was capable of anything. Dudley always is) but he’s not a captain of industry or anything like that. What gives Dudley his power is the LAPD, and he works within that organization to create his own empire. What makes him so scary and so nearly unique among American archetypes is that Dudley is precisely not the loner or the loose cannon. He’s just the most ideal version of all law enforcement.
The counterforce to Dudley Smith is an even better organization man, Ed Exley, a leading character in L. A. Confidential and a minor but key player in White Jazz. Exley stands on the other side of “the dividing line between the old police work and the new, the old system of promotion through patronage and enforcement through intimidation and a new emerging system: the elite police corps that impartially asserts its authority in the name of a stern and unbiased justice. . .” and it will be Exley who triumphs over Dudley and manages the world Dudley made. Ellroy’s insight, and what makes Exley such a compelling character, is that this is entirely a performance; Exley makes himself into this image and promotes it, and his story in L. A. Confidential is all about what that does to him.
In White Jazz, Exley says “the public has no idea what justice costs the men who perform it,” and that line is the real key to the entire L. A. Quartet. It can be read as a Jack Webb-like platitude, but every term has a deeper and trickier meaning. (The line before is “Did you enjoy shooting those niggers?”) “Justice” here isn’t anything like righteousness, and it’s certainly not equality; justice means order and the enforcing of an unequal order. If the public has no idea, that’s because the public gets continually shielded from knowing the truth, and usually by Exley. And justice is definitely a performance, something that has to be put on display for everyone to see–L. A. Confidential also features a Legally Not Dragnet (Badge of Honor) and Ellroy incorporates some of the LAPD’s real-life involvement with Webb and Dragnet. (Webb shows up in Perfidia, already sucking up to every cop around.) The cost is the real term in that sentence, and Exley pays it; this is what turning yourself into Joe Friday costs you, and what it costs “the public.”
Exley has been performing all his life, starting with WW2, where he faked himself killing 23 Japanese soldiers and made himself a war hero, when he actually hid under the dead bodies of fellow soldiers. It continues with the Bloody Christmas scandal, where Exley, locked in a storage closet, writes three different versions of what happened, figuring out who to scapegoat and who to sacrifice. (As Exley, Guy Pearce explaining this to the LAPD brass was the turning point of the movie. Before, I was watching an expensive production of Law and Order; now I was in Ellroy’s world.) Exley is always competing with his father Preston, a former policeman and now wildly successful businessman. Preston proclaims “absolute justice,” and by novel’s end, we see exactly what that meant: who he killed and how he was manipulated into doing it, and that recognition leads to his suicide. In L. A. Confidential, Exley journeys from the virtue of absolute justice to absolute power, and that’s why he survives. He manipulates everyone around him and never stops rising (decades after the end of the Quartet, he’s running for governor, one more way in which the violence and betrayal of the past disappears into the smooth present), and always ends up alone; we see him in White Jazz living in a mansion with a “catalog-perfect” living room and twenty pictures of Dudley Smith–”Exley hate fuel.”
Near the end of L. A. Confidential, Exley proclaims “Fuck Dudley sideways. I’ve got a shitload of Patchett’s money for a bankroll, and I’ll burn down that Irish cocksucker if it’s the last fucking thing I ever do. Lad.” Ellroy makes a brilliant move next, in that Dudley and Exley are off to the side for most of White Jazz, with Dave Klein only gradually coming to realize that Exley is using him to get to Dudley and the novel is ¾ over when Klein says “say it: Ed Exley vs. Dudley Smith.” The final struggle between the two of them, done entirely through proxies, is every bit the equal of the Smiley/Karla war in John le Carré’s work, and with the same kind of moral danger. (“You like running people as much as Dudley does. It must gall you to know he’s better at it.” “You sure of that?” “No, you cocksucker, I’m not. But I know it must get you to look in the mirror and see Dudley.”) Exley wins in the end (even manipulating Klein into stealing the money from L. A. Confidential, baiting him with a piece of Scotch tape that he “accidentially” leaves dangling from a chair), and Dudley’s final fate is Cronenberg-dark: injured, brain-damaged, and Exley secures a pension to keep him in “a comprehensively equipped sanitarium indefinitely.” I read this as meaning that now Exley can make sure he never recovers, especially since he lets slip that “it’s important that Captain Smith remain contained.” In the end, Dudley becomes a barely-living piece of nostalgia, a reminder of the earlier time (”men were men then”) that Exley defeated and can now look back on and safely praise. Klein describes Exley on the final page of White Jazz: “Acknowledged Dudley Smith admirer–politically expedient, smart.” Whatever you think of Exley, Ellroy makes it clear that nothing less than him can defeat the Dudleys of this world.
The Shield echoes Ellroy’s moral universe in the characters of Vic Mackey and David Aceveda, who have more than a little of Dudley Smith and Ed Exley in them. Aceveda rises just as fast with just as little mercy as Exley (at the end of the series, he’s on his way to becoming mayor) and a different version of The Shield could have detailed Mackey’s criminal empire, something on a smaller scale than Dudley’s but ruled no less absolutely. Making the Exley character Latino makes much clearer the generational split between Dudley and Exley: for all his power, Vic is of the older, white, phone-book wielding generation of LAPD–”dinosaurs” as his mentor Gilroy sez, and Vic disappears from the force as Aceveda rises. (John Diehl’s Gilroy is another echo of Dudley, a degenerated one. He has Dudley’s position and brutality but none of his self-discipline or intelligence, and it’s a lot easier for Aceveda to destroy him than it was for Exley to do it to Dudley.)
The final book of the L. A. Quartet, White Jazz, stands as an anomaly. For the Quartet as a whole, it finishes Smith and Exley’s story, but the main focus is Dave “The Enforcer” Klein. It’s shorter than every other novel discussed here, the least concerned with history (although the destruction of Mexican-American neighborhoods to make a place for Dodger Stadium plays a key role), and it’s the last novel Ellroy has written in the first person to date (although Blood’s a Rover and Perfidia have extended first-person passages). It also may be the best thing he’s ever written, a portrayal of a tormented man going down in flames, Ellroy’s Notes from Underground. (I don’t know if this was the work that got Joyce Carol Oates to call him the American Dostoyevsky.)
White Jazz begins with an epigraph from Ross MacDonald, Ellroy’s influence nearly from childhood: “In the end I possess my birthplace and am possessed by its language.” That possession, that shaping by origins and language, defines Klein. Coming from a brutal childhood and an incestuous love for his sister (“Meg Klein, sobbing: ‘I don’t want you to love me that way’”), Klein comes into the story as a fixer for both the LAPD and the mob. He’s assassinated people (Ellroy makes him responsible for the “Two Tonys” hit and Klein kills a witness at the end of the second chapter), beats people, and never stops dealing. There’s nothing like conventional morality on display here; the Federal probe run by Jack Kennedy wannabe Welles Noonan is entirely a power play. In L. A. Confidential, the language was still narration; here, Ellroy uses it like telegrams, giving bursts of information, eloquence, even warning signs (“RED BLACK RED”) in a way that feels like a consciousness. (My internal monologue now says “coffee, pastry–fuck me” at every meeting.) The dislocated, jumpy language reflects Klein’s scrambling mind perfectly; if Klein ever had a moment to rest or reflect he’d probably kill himself. He goes farther than the triple protagonists of L. A. Confidential and Ellroy goes farther into him. Klein has left behind any kind of normality, and he succeeds as a character because Ellroy follows him in language and action; he’s a monster, and monstrously sympathetic.
The frenetic language gets matched by the plot, with as much complexity-per-page as any other Ellroy work. There’s another psycho killer on the loose, and it ties into the backstory of the LAPD and the aforementioned Exley/Dudley showdown. (One pleasure here is realizing that Exley started setting up Dudley immediately after the events of L. A. Confidential. As Klein sez, “I fix things, Exley runs things.”) By showing everything from Klein’s perspective, and by compressing the action (almost everything happens inside a few weeks), Ellroy makes the action as frenzied as the language. The final hundred pages are the fastest and most relentless narrative I’ve ever read, as Klein gets chased by more and more people and runs out of option after option, and the desperation comes off in all the words. In the final death struggle between the killer and Dudley (“EYEBALL MAN! EYEBALL MAN!”), Klein starts shooting (“‘NO!’–my scream/my gun out/aiming at them tangled up together”) and I don’t know which one he’s trying to kill, or why, and I don’t think Klein knows either. Maybe he’s written better books, but nothing so terrifyingly intimate as this one.
With his next novel, Ellroy went the other way and jumped his game again, broadening the historical scope to all of American history. The Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover) stages the great events of America from 1958 to 1972–the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the riots and church bombings, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs, elections, protests, all the way to the death of J. Edgar Hoover–from the perspective not from the conspirators behind everything, but the operators, the ones who carried the cash, recruited the assassins, ran the drugs, and tried to stay alive through it all. These make for good crime fiction characters because they’re at risk; in this universe, those at the top stay there and those at the bottom are disposable, but the ones in the middle might or might not make it. (Thanks to Son of Griff for this insight.) Ellroy takes a standard conspiratorial perspective to these events, treating them as the result of both people high up in the government and organized crime, but making the main characters the people in the middle makes this exciting and valuable beyond conspiracy. Whoever really runs things and whyever they’re run, somebody’s gotta do the dirty work, and that’s who Ellroy brings to life here.
Although Tabloid and 6000 both keep the triple-protagonist model of L. A. Confidential and The Big Nowhere, they don’t follow the earlier story of a crime novel in that they drop any kind of backstory-to-be-revealed-at-the-end; they are both straight start-to-finish narratives, each covering five years. (Tabloid begins five years to the day of JFK’s assassination, and ends just before the shots are fired.) Unique among Ellroy’s novels, history is not the background here but the text. These are stories about how specific historical events happened, and who made them happen. In both novels, Ellroy embeds an argument in an elegant structural trick: both start off very slowly, with hundreds of pages that cover the first year of their times, and then accelerate. In Tabloid, the assassination of Kennedy doesn’t get underway until the last 75 pages. In Ellroy’s world, the events in history become by-products of a deeper master narrative of American crime and violence, and that’s what elevates Underworld USA from conspiracy fiction to a powerful alternate history. The history we know, Ellroy says, is a side effect of the real thing.
Writing a story about the Kennedy assassination calls up Don deLillo’s great novel Libra and Tabloid does just fine in comparison. Where Ellroy writes beyond conspiracy to an alternate history, deLillo meditates on conspiracy and history itself. Libra has some of deLillo’s best action and characters, but the special thing he brings to the story is Nicholas Branch, the retired agent writing a secret history of the assassination for the CIA. The Branch passages allow deLillo to spin into beautiful digressions about how history, conspiracy, and even reality work; description is deLillo’s moral language as much as narrative is Ellroy’s. (My general problem with deLillo’s post-Underworld novels is that they abandon action entirely for description, versions of Libra that have only the Branch material.) That’s fascinating, entrancing, subtle, but it’s not what Ellroy’s doing. When Hoover, early in 6000, says “The metaphysical dimensions of this alleged tragedy do not interest me. Get to the point,” I read that as a playful tweak on deLillo. (I attended an Ellroy reading where he said deLillo’s problem was that he couldn’t stop showing you how smart he was.) deLillo reflects on what happened; Ellroy writes about the people who make it happen. Since Ellroy writes action, there’s much less ambiguity, because action requires characters to resolve ambiguity and make choices. Having said that, check out chapter 90 of Tabloid, three pages where one of the characters planning to kill JFK realizes “There’s a second plan in the works.” It’s a stunning three pages of writing, giving that sense of conspiracies reverberating to infinity that marks the best of deLillo and The X-Files. Anyone who doubts Ellroy’s skill as a writer, go read that.
The language of Tabloid has the same antecedents as before, still hardboiled, but the sentences have an evenness and directness to them that’s new:
Everybody looked at Delsol–Obregón’s fucking cousin. The picture spread: Let him do it.
Chuck let Obregón go. Pete handed his gun to Delsol.
Obregón trembled and almost teetered off the dock. Delsol shot him six times in the chest.
He spun into the water. Steam hissed out his exit wounds.
Fulo dove in and scalped him.
Delsol looked away.
Awarding it the Best Novel of 1995, Time magazine called the style “subject-verb-blooey!” and it’s as right here as the overheated language of White Jazz was for Dave Klein. Ellroy takes extreme action and makes of it a classical story; the language feels like the steady camera of Kubrick in The Shining or Paths of Glory. The real antecedent of this style isn’t noir but the language of the Yahwist, the author of the oldest passages of the Torah. Like Ellroy, she relates action with force and without the mercy of description or introspection. This is what happens and this is what you do about it (this is David Rosenberg’s translation in The Book of J):
Now it was midnight; Yahweh struck all the first sons in Egypt, from the son of the Pharaoh who sits on the throne, to the son of the prisoner who squats in the hole–to every beast firstling. Pharaoh awoke in the night–he, his officers, all Egypt–to a great scream: there is no house in which there is not a dead man.
If you’re going to write an origin story, go back to, well, the originating origin story of our culture. Like the Yahwist, Ellroy writes about a world of violence, a world without justice, and the new world that gets made from it.
The three protagonists of Tabloid are Big Pete Bondurant (a minor character in White Jazz) and FBI Agents Kemper Boyd and Ward Littell. Bondurant holds our attention well enough, but his real story will come in 6000; it’s the Boyd/Littell story that gives Tabloid its real spine. Boyd feels like the result of a simple thought experiment: what would John F. Kennedy be like without his daddy? (Ellroy writes Joe Kennedy, by the way, as a true, amoral criminal mastermind, a much better version of The Black Dahlia’s Daddy Sprague. After his stroke, JFK says of him “don’t worry, he’s too evil to die.”) Boyd is handsome, charming, smart, and forever trying to suck up to JFK; what Ellroy gets is that both of them are without a moral center. Boyd systematically betrays Littell in his pursuit of power with the Kennedys and then begins to disintegrate, falling into violence, drug addiction, and finally getting rejected by the Kennedys themselves, with Robert doing the job. Kemper’s line “tell your brother nobody ever loved him more and got back less” shows how much Ellroy’s style works here–that line is the unadorned essence of the Boyd/JFK relationship. Kemper keeps getting warned about using people–that they can always use him better, and that’s what happens.
Ward J. Littell is something new in an Ellroy novel, and done better here than anywhere else: Ellroy shows how a good man turns into an Ellrovian operator. Jesuit seminarian, physical coward, and wiretapping expert, Littell starts as the RFK to Boyd’s JFK: the crusader, determined to give up futile anti-communism for the pursuit of organized crime. Littell takes his own journey into alcoholism and violence but turns both around, pivoting in a chapter where, through smarts, planning, and sheer brute force, he pulls off a burglary that’s one of the most astonishing setpieces Ellroy’s ever written. He becomes fully sober and a mobbed-up lawyer, and the planner for the Miami attempt on JFK’s life, later cancelled. Ten words define his relationship with Boyd: Littell says “he gave you great gifts. They compensate for his betrayals.” Ellroy has a sense of character here that goes deeper than right-or-wrong: Littell may abandon his earlier morality (near the end “he tried to dredge up a Hail Mary and couldn’t remember the words”) but he has a groundedness to him (so does Bondurant) that Boyd lacks, and it’s why he gets out of this novel alive. Boyd and Littell end their story on a fittingly classical moment, what feels like the only possible end to their story: Littell executes Boyd on Carlos Marcello’s orders. Littell makes his first kill and truly crosses over, and Boyd dies (“thinking of Jack”) at the hands of the man he created.
Like the L. A. Quartet, the Underworld USA trilogy takes these characters and places them in history, and it goes much farther in embedding historical figures in the narrative. Among its other high points, Tabloid has the best portrait, fictional or otherwise, of John F. Kennedy I’ve ever read. Ellroy’s JFK is shallow, completely unfaithful (one woman calls him “a de facto rapist”), entitled, and very, very smart, and underestimated by every single other character–including, fatally, Boyd. He’s offstage (offpage?) for most of the novel, but his presence and his impact on other characters never lets up.
Of course, he only gets to be in one novel. The historical figures that provide the most continuity in Underworld USA are J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes, both appearing in all three books and both losing their mind and their power all the time. Hoover declines like the Judge/Chigurh/Old Man character in Cormac McCarthy’s books (I continue to claim that those three are not just the same kind of character but the same person). Hoover is the natural successor to Dudley Smith, the embodiment of institutional power and containment; in 6000, Littell thinks “It’s Martin Luther/1532. It’s Europe aflame. There’s the Pope. He’s Mr. Hoover. His old world’s aflame.” He has as much of Dudley’s “eye for human weakness” (“Mr. Boyd, you are talking to the world’s nonpareil bullshit artist and master of subterfuge. As good as you are at it, and you are brilliantly good, I am better”) and even more resources at his disposal. Especially in Tabloid, he works by knowing people and using their wants to achieve his goals. (“Mr. Hoover knew him–as no one else ever had or ever would. He felt an ugly wave of love for the man.”) Like the God of the Yahwist, he both presides over the action and interacts with it. Most of his appearances come via transcripts and dialogue; he rarely occupies the same space as the characters. He’s at his most powerful in Tabloid and declines from there, ending the series drooling into his food, felled by an emerald-induced heart attack.
Hughes is a more minor character than Hoover, but he’s still fascinating; Ellroy made use of him as far back as The Big Nowhere. Ellroy portrays him at the level of several organized-crime figures, heirs to his Mickey Cohen in the L. A. Quartet: Santo Trafficante, Carlos Marcello, Sam Giancana. They’re really more scenery than anything else, and Ellroy gives them his best writing in Tabloid and then lets them degenerate into jokes in 6000 and Blood’s a Rover. A reliable index of the quality of an Ellroy novel is how he treats the minor characters. In Tabloid, Ellroy gives one of his quickest and most exacting descriptions about Marcello: “Carlos used people and made sure they knew the rules. Carlos knew he would pay for his life with eternal damnation.” Marcello and company, including Hughes, don’t get treated with the same respect in the later novels; they show up largely for some cheap jokes.
The Cold Six Thousand falls off from the heights of American Tabloid but it improves in retrospect; Ellroy pushed himself on this one, trying to incorporate some new flavors of morality and action. He didn’t succeed, but he pushed himself against the limits of his creativity and made something never less than memorable. This novel has his strongest opening: a title card that announces “Wayne Tedrow Jr./Dallas, 11/22/63” and the first lines “They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee. He wasn’t sure he could do it,” which sets up the sense of the last moment of a world that’s about to change forever, and exactly catches a sense of who Tedrow is: part of the world of Tabloid but hesitant about joining it. (The next two chapters reintroduce Bondurant and Littell, completing another triple-protagonist structure.)
6000 is at its best when Ellroy’s characters have to deal with the way assassinating JFK changed the game. “Political goals achieved by assassination” has become such a cliché in our popular culture, but Ellroy actually makes it fresh here, as Littell and especially Bondurant (“Nothing happened in Dallas. Don’t you read the New York Times?”) have to cope with the awe and danger of having changed history; there’s a running motif of people involved in the assassination getting killed off, and usually Bondurant is the one to do it; throughout the novel, it costs him more and more, emotionally, spiritually, and especially physically (I was not expecting the toughest of all Ellroy’s tough guys to start having heart attacks.) The Survivors would be a good alternate title for 6000, because at its best, Ellroy conveys the kind of shellshocked feeling of having done something unprecedented, and having to live with it.
Wayne Tedrow Jr., “considered incorruptible by Las Vegas police standards” (that prepositional phrase is a wonderfully funny touch), takes the most complex journey of 6000 and shows just how real Ellroy’s morality is, and how far from our own. In the first brief section of the book, he refuses to kill his target Wendell Durfee and ends up killing a Dallas cop. In this world, mercy is an action, as much as killing is; really, it’s an even more destructive action and that launches the rest of the story. Tedrow’s arc in 6000 is Shakespearean, like that of Titus Andronicus or Lear: he refused to act, and the consequences start almost immediately. Durfee comes back to Vegas and rapes and kills Tedrow’s wife–the worst fridging in all of Ellroy–and Tedrow starts his journey into the criminal world with Bondurant as his patron, recapping Littell’s journey from Tabloid in a much more brutal way. Littell, for his part, attempts to atone, playing both ends in a game with Hoover and RFK. It’s the least convincing aspect of 6000, probably because Ellroy drew Littell’s fall so well in Tabloid.
A slight digression: Ellroy has cited the late Romantic composers (Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler) and their symphonic works as the major influence on his ability to create large-scale structures. With its glacial pace and inevitable snapping in place of element after element, American Tabloid does feel much like Bruckner, just as the overloaded undercontrolled energy of Blood’s a Rover comes off as Mahlerian. (Less controlled, almost improvisatory, 6000 is Ellroy’s version of John Coltrane’s Ascension.) His approach to character and incident in the Underworld USA trilogy should be understood symphonically rather than in terms of fiction. Unlike, for example, the Harry Potter series, the three novels do not form one linked story with the same characters and a rising curve of incident all through them. In the L. A. Quartet, characters were recognizably the same between books, and there was a coherent story in the last two novels. The three books of Underworld USA are independent, and the characters are like harmonies in them: similar, recognizable, the base material to play out his themes, but not the same. The Ward Littell of Tabloid doesn’t quite match up to the one in 6000; the Wayne Tedrow Jr. of 6000 also doesn’t quite carry over to Blood’s a Rover; in fact, just as Tedrow recapped Littell’s journey into organized crime, Blood’s has Tedrow play out Littell’s shot at redemption in 6000, but better. (It’s a nice touch that Ellroy often names characters after other writers: Kellerman, Petievich, Didion, Turow, Vachss, Littell.) If you read the novels for reworkings rather than continuity, they hold up just fine.¹ It’s also necessary, in the Ellroy oeuvre, to ignore the number of times characters go all Russian roulette on each other; I haven’t actually calculated the odds against no one getting their heads blown the fuck off, but it’s probably in the low trillions-to-one range.
Among historical figures, Martin Luther King Jr. has just as much impact, maybe even more, on the characters of 6000 as JFK has on Tabloid with the key difference that King stays entirely out of the novel. That makes some kind of sense, because King stands outside the limit of what Ellroy and his characters can understand. Ellroy can easily make JFK a character, and even RFK, who has some moments where he appears via wiretap transcripts. John Fowles once said that saints were the characters the author couldn’t predict; they’re the ones that don’t fit into the universe, and that’s King. MLK’s actions stand outside the novel and what we keep seeing is how the characters within the novel try to deal with that. His goodness is the anvil that breaks others, Hoover most of all, and that’s mythically right; King is the only person who can beat Hoover just as Exley is the only one who could beat Dudley. Watching Ellroy’s men try and fail to even make sense of him, much less defeat him, over hundreds of pages becomes the greatest testament to King’s power. You couldn’t ask for a better tribute to him from an Ellroy character than Dwight Holly’s line “He worked against him and admired him anyway, and I’m starting to feel the same way. That grandiose cocksucker is a jigaboo for the ages.” Killing JFK was a strategy; Ellroy makes killing King feel like desperation.
Late in 6000, Tedrow expresses (in the clipped, jazz-like language of this novel) what could be called Ellroy’s philosophy of political action:
King’s dead. Bobby soon. Shit will peak and resettle. The Poor People’s March tanked. The riots upstaged it. Fools popped their rocks and resettled. Chaos is taxing. Fools tire quick. King’s death let them roar and resettle. Bobby will go. Dick Nixon will reign. The country will roar and resettle.
The fix will work. Peace will reign. His type will run things. He saw it. He felt it. He knew.
You can hear a strong echo here from one of the greatest political novels ever written, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: “One thing was certain: The sound of that chant hoarsely rising and falling was to be the cause of nothing, nothing at all.” Ellroy’s subject remains the exercise of authority, the work of those who “run things.” To the extent anything like democracy appears in his novels, it appears as the ancient authors saw it: a quick, occasionally violent expression of popular passion, with no moral or ruling force to it. (Tedrow will have some fun manipulating it in Blood’s.) Those authors saw that expression as a danger but Ellroy barely acknowledges it at all; he understands the inertia of large institutions (and organized crime is one of them) and how almost no one, save King, has the commitment necessary to change it.
I wasn’t at all prepared for what Ellroy would do with Blood’s a Rover. Set from 1968 to the death of Hoover in 1972, it engages with fewer specific historical events than any Ellroy novel since White Jazz, and returns to the crime-novel format (investigation of a crime at the beginning and other crimes long in the past) of the L. A. Quartet. That’s the only way in which it’s less ambitious, though. What makes Blood’s Ellroy’s most expansive work yet is how he keeps the same authoritarian structure of history, but allows a bigger and more diverse cast to take part. He starts with the same triple-protagonist structure, two old (Tedrow and Special Agent Dwight Holly, like Bondurant, a minor character in the previous novel) and one new (Don Crutchfield, amateur detective and driver for less amateur detectives). He goes out from there, though, allowing minor characters to jump to major ones (LAPD Sergeant Scotty Bennett, “Red Goddess” Joan Klein) and spending substantial time with other characters via their diaries (Joan, Quaker activist Karen Sifakis, and Marshall Bowen; the last two are respectively Holly’s lover/old informant and new informant). That’s seven major characters, two of which are women² and one of which–Bowen–is black and gay. Ellroy sends all these characters into collisions with each other and with the past in a way that is breathtaking in its insight and complexity. If White Jazz argues to be Ellroy’s best novel for its intensity, and American Tabloid makes the claim on its classicism, this one might be his best on sheer daring.
That expansiveness comes through with his new characters as well as the old. We can feel Tedrow’s need to change, rather than just hear about it as we did with Littell in 6000. With Marsh Bowen, Ellroy once again creates someone new for us out of the sheer force of his imagination. Black, gay, an LAPD cop but undercover with black activists, Bowen plays a role at every moment of his life and never stops feeling the conflict. That conflict comes through in his diary entries, written in a new, almost fevered style, and in his meetings with Dwight Holly, with Holly alternating between sympathy and racism. Equally conflicted and divided is Karen Sifakis, a pacifist given to blowing up monuments and always wondering how far she can go with it. (She gets a moment of ownage late in the novel that had me literally jump out of my chair.) Tabloid and 6000 addressed the great social upheaval of the 1960s from the perspective of people trying to stop it; here, everyone is engaged in it, trying to manage it, and wondering what change really means: “I will risk the short-term probability of squalor in fervent hope that the sustained depravity of heroin will lead to a rich expression of racial identity and ultimately to political revelation and revolt,” writes Joan.
There’s a romanticism, even an optimism, to the characters here that’s new, seen most clearly with Crutchfield, carrier of “the gene of persistence,” whose journey gives Blood’s its spine. (Of the three main characters at the beginning, he’s the only one alive at the end, and Ellroy frames the book with his remembrance.) A petty burglar and peeper, Crutchfield is the closest Ellroy has ever come to writing himself into his fiction; he has Ellroy’s backstory to his early twenties, a missing mother, and a father just a bit more degenerate than Ellroy’s own. It’s easy to read Crutchfield as Ellroy’s projection of himself as the hidden hero of his times (he gets to say “you killed the man who killed JFK”) but, as ever, the rawness of the character and the writing, the way that Crutchfield’s emotions and fear are always right in our face, makes him work. When Crutchfield gets confronted with the question “why do you do such crazy things?” you can’t ask for anything more direct or more moving than his response: “So women will love me.”
Ellroy presents a greater range of action and morality here than he ever has, and he takes all these characters to the limits of their morality. The pacifist becomes a killer; the mob functionary becomes a rebel; and most powerfully, in the last third of the novel, Holly launches a plot to “kill Hoover and frame Marsh Bowen for it.” All through the story, Ellroy has portrayed Holly as increasingly tormented by his actions; it’s there in all his interactions with Marsh Bowen:
He knew Marsh. The diary confirmed it straight off. Their narrative styles were similar. They both knew how smart they were. They both had the same dry wit. They both worshipped ruthlessness. Marsh was new to it and in awe of it. Oh, you kid. Oh, my brother. You don’t know what it costs.
the last word an echo of what Exley said. Like a lot of Ellroy’s men, he’s on the run from something in his past, but Holly is the one who winds up in a sanitarium because of it. When he decides to abandon the Hoover assassination with “nobody dies” (a line, like several others, that’s repeated and shared among characters in Blood’s), it’s genuine and moving. Ellroy couldn’t have written Holly earlier in his career and he couldn’t have written him if he’d written about good cops doing noble deeds. Writing about toughness, violence, and containment has finally led him to the point where he can convey, not just state, the cost of it.
Until Blood’s, Ellroy has written history as a one-sided battle; we see the violence and hatred wielded by those in power, but we never saw how people fought back. Here, we see Tedrow not just donate to the opposition but go full rogue (blowing up some Mob casinos-in-progress in the Dominican Republic) and a full, mystical backstory, going back to Spanish Conquest of the 1500s and the early years of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. This is Joan Klein’s part of the story; it both calls up centuries of resistance to power and demonstrates one particular families struggle in the 20th century. Here, Ellroy shows characters not just acting but feeling the need to fight: “you had to act, because no one else would.” It helps that a lot of the story and characters, especially Tedrow, engage in the drugs and hallucinatory flights of the late 1960s/early 1970s, something that feels more like Pynchon than Hammett or Chandler. As in Pynchon’s Traverse novels, Ellroy describes actions and motivations of such complexity that the term “resistance” seems naïve and clumsy.
History becomes something up for grabs here in a way it’s never been with Ellroy before; so does character. All the previous novels used a classical sense of fate determined by character; here, everyone is in flux, at risk. History isn’t fated, either. All the other novels were bound by historical events, but by the end of Blood’s there are other possibilities in play. Joan and Karen’s vision of a better world might just win the day. Ellroy’s deeply felt, deeply written morality means that he doesn’t present that as hope or take sides; he simply acknowledges that there’s more to this story. This is the only Ellroy novel of which you could say “the future is unwritten.”
The history of America is the story of how America separated itself from the rest of the world, and how a particular class of white people separated themselves from the rest of America. I am one of them. This was done by means of genocide, slavery, theft, murder, violence, and deceit. Because Ellroy writes about these things and only these things, and writes about them not only without condemnation but without any awareness that there is anything else to write about, he creates a history that feels right. Writing with a “reckless verisimilitude” (American Tabloid), he gives us a myth that’s appropriate for the depths of America’s crimes. Ellroy doesn’t have to write about the slave trade or biological warfare against American Indians or strikebreaking or you name it for us to imagine that those things happened with the same kind of violence that Ellroy shows us in his work.
Ellroy’s fictional history lands as the opposite number to (this is just the most obvious example) Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn writes with so much depth, care, and evidence. He writes about victims just as Ellroy writes about the victimizers, and with such certainty about the injustice of it all, writing about those “ignored by the fine words of the Declaration.” The only reaction I ever had to Zinn, though, was “how else did you think it happens, Howie?” Ellroy presents the same racism, oppression, and violence as Zinn not as violations, but as necessities, and after reading him, I just can’t feel outrage over America’s betrayal of its ideals; for those rewarded by this history to hold those ideals (like whatever yutz wrote this apparently does) feels like the deepest hypocrisy, the most insidious privilege, one more kind of American exceptionalism. Zinn writes a history of America’s violation of its ideals; Ellroy has never heard of them. You have no right to be angry over ideals that never existed; you might as well write an exposé about how a fat guy in a red suit has failed to hand out presents this year.
Ellroy presents the racist history of America in a racist way, and that’s why it works. He burns down American ideals, the true bonfire of liberal vanities, right down to the language. I’m aware of the imitative fallacy–one does not have to be racist to write about racism, one does not have to be boring to write about boredom–but there’s a fallacy in the imitative fallacy. The imitative fallacy argument assumes that a bright line can be drawn between aesthetic and other experience, that the reader can appreciate the artistry of portraying racism, boredom, so forth, while distancing him- or herself from it. Ellroy collapses that distance and refuses to draw the line, which is why his work has an impact beyond aesthetics and gives it a claim on history. He doesn’t denounce this history and he doesn’t have any characters who denounce it; a reader who wants to say how horrible this all is can’t find anybody with which to identify.
Ellroy deals with characters who are far removed from ordinary people and ordinary morality. The latter is necessary; to call up Frank Miller again, think of the passage in The Dark Knight Returns where Commissioner Gordon reflects on FDR, and whether or not he knew ahead of time about Pearl Harbor: “It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big.” When we weigh moral choices in our lives, we consider consequences, or at least we should; but how do you weigh the moral choices when the consequences change an entire future? (ZoeZ has noted how Deadwood takes on this different kind of morality, and you could just as easily imagine Ellroy saying “wants me to tell him something pretty.”) Ellroy’s historical figures live at that scale, and they barely seem to choose at all. They are less people than embodiments of forces, King and Hoover most of all, the twin American Gods of the 1960s. They are truly epic figures; we don’t analyze them but witness. The strength of these novels is how they show how strong but still believable characters have to negotiate and live in a the same world as these epic figures and their morality–and that was the Yahwist’s skill, too.
Ellroy strips American history–really all history–of its innocence, which means he does it to us, too, the inheritors of that history. (He signals that as his clear intention in the legendary first line of American Tabloid: “America was never innocent.”) In the Enlightenment model of the freely choosing individual, we are all innocent; how could we not be? We are independent, choosing entities and those choices, nothing else, make our lives. Ellroy reminds us that to live in history, to live with history’s legacy, costs you your innocence. He writes about the creation of the modern world, and the violence and hate that bought whatever peace and ideals we have.
It’s so easy to condemn those in the past for making different decisions and having different values than we have, and a lot of historical fiction does this. Ellroy’s characters, though, made the decisions and took the actions that resulted in our world and our values. (So did Alexander Hamilton, for that matter.) And I can’t condemn the people who gave me my existence. That’s what makes history not just some things that happened in another time and place; that’s what gives history its continuity, what makes it a legacy rather than, as John Ashbery sez, “a record of pebbles along the way.” It’s not just that I’ve done worse; I’ve been made by worse. To read Ellroy is to say, as in No Country for Old Men, “OK. I’ll be part of this world.”
That’s why it’s so useful to read Ellroy as the necessary counterpart to Mad Men. Partially it’s a formal reason: you can argue that Mad Men is the great literary drama of our time and Ellroy’s work our great dramatic literature. There’s a deeper historical reason, though: Ellroy’s characters created Mad Men’s world. Don Draper lives in a world of advertising agencies, flights to California, and a house in Ossining because all of those things were separated away from the rest of America and made a home for the white race, and Ellroy’s characters did that. Don is a character in Mad Men and not The Wire because of Dudley Smith. He can have all his psychological quests, and the show can indulge in symbolism, take its time, let him have a long life with only an ex-wife’s death by cancer to interrupt it because Smith contained everything that could threaten that, until all he sees of race is a protest outside his window. None of this takes away from the greatness of Mad Men; it just locates it. Mad Men is America’s great, challenging narrative of the self-made men and the world they made, and Ellroy’s novels are its necessary Shadow, the blood and hate that made them–and certainly me, and maybe you too–possible. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.
¹Ellroy’s most recent novel, Perfidia, begins what he calls the Second L. A. Quartet, which will take characters from all seven previous novels and place them in the 1941-1946 era. So far, this doesn’t work. Writing variations on characters’ pasts is different from writing their futures, because it always brings up the question “why didn’t we hear about this?” We know Dahlia’s Bucky Bleichert sold out his high-school buddy Hideo Ashida, but how come he never mentioned that Ashida was LAPD? And there’s just no way that Dudley Smith is (I am not making this up) Elizabeth Short’s (really I’m not) father and doesn’t appear in Dahlia. This isn’t a matter of characters not being believable, it makes the other narratives not believable. All this might be justified if Ellroy had done something drastically different, but the opposite happened; the language has just the same heightened quality as Blood’s a Rover and so do the characters: Kay Lake and William Parker, for example, replay the Marsh Bowen/Dwight Holly relationship. However, Ellroy has always gone his own way and eventually struck gold while doing it, so we’ll see what he does with his next book.
²In writing this essay, it became necessary to leave out a lot. I’ve focused more on Ellroy’s relation to history than character, and the most glaring omission is Ellroy’s women. He once said that the L. A. Quartet’s true subject was “bad men and strong women,” and that’s very much right; there are no weak women among the major characters here. To all Ellroy readers out there, I wish I’d been able to include this stuff and still finish this before, say, his next damn book comes out. Feel free to open a discussion about all things Ellrovian in the comments.