Monday, February 22, 2010

Ellroy's World

Welcome to Ellroy's World.  It's just like the world you know, only different - all of the same events, but with different causes, rooted in the bad decisions of bad men wallowing in a morass of violence and corruption.  It's the alternate universe created by Neo-Noir madman James Ellroy, and it will twist your mind.

Ellroy's work is probably familiar to most through the movie adaptation of his L.A. Confidential, which simplified his novel considerably, while still managing to capture its essential spirit.  But that book was merely the third part of a quartet - The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L. A. Confidential, and White Jazz - all of which feature ambivalent anti-heroes trying to find some kind of salvation in a city so corrupt it makes Sodom look like Branson, Missouri.
The Black Dahlia

In Ellroy's Los Angeles, the cops are not only on the take from the criminals; they are the criminals.  The books span a timeline from the late 1940s to the late 50s, and depict the city in all of its torrid glory.  Each one is dense with plot (so much so that capsule descriptions are impossible), and generally revolve around a tortured cop protagonist trying to solve a series of brutal and freakish serial killings, while at the same time trying to maintain some distance from the police/mob/political elite that controls the town.  Ultimately, though, the details are unimportant - it's the milieu that matters.

The Big NowhereEllroy knows L.A. - and he knows crime.  His mother was murdered in the city when he was 10 years old (the crime remains unsolved), and the psychic residue from that event led to a post-adolescent career as a peeping tom, burglar and junkie, getting to know the underbelly of the city with a stunning intimacy.  After a close run-in with the reaper, he cleaned up and began pouring his angst into words on paper.  His style, conventional at first, eventually metamorphized into a unique hipster staccato, based largely on the syntax of 50s tabloids, which effortlessly fixes the reader into the time and place.

L.A. ConfidentialWeaving fictional characters and motivations into real events (such as the Black Dahlia killing), Ellroy succeeds in creating a wholly unified alternate reality, which may be closer to the truth than what we think we know.  More importantly, he uses his characters to explore the nature of good and evil, failure and redemption, good intentions and bad actions, in a way that chills the soul.
White Jazz: A NovelIdeally, the books should be read in order - while each has a different set of protagonists, there is a background continuity that enhances the impact of the individual stories.  (This backstory is largely defined by the struggle over control of the city's police department by two high-ranking officers - ubervillain Old School Detective Dudley Smith and up-and-coming straight-arrow Edward Exley - that inevitably manipulates the other main characters into ugly situations.)

Ellroy followed this triumph with an even more ambitious trilogy - American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood's A Rover - which take his unique style national, exploring the pivotal events of 1960s American history through the same twisted lens of secret corruption.   Individual reviews of all seven novels (as well as some of Ellroy's equally arresting non-fiction work) will appear here in future, but don't wait - start reading them now.

No comments:

Post a Comment