Since the journal has gotten on a literary bent, I might as well continue the theme while the minutes tick away by telling you about one of the best writers I know of. James Ellroy began his career writing mysteries, novels that had a restless edge of deviant weirdness and a fetishistic noir sensibility. He achieved real notoriety with his novel THE BLACK DAHLIA, a fictitious exploration of an infamous murder case from 1940s Los Angeles. From there, he moved forward inexorably through time by means of a series of novels chronicling the unseen worlds of Los Angeles from the 1940s to the 1960s. As he did so, he emerged from the ghetto of “Mystery Fiction” to success as a critically-acclaimed author of plain old “Fiction.” His recent book,(1996, as opposed to 1989) AMERICAN TABLOID, is the first of a trilogy chronicling a larger world: American history, seen from the seamy side, going from 1960 up to about 1977 or so. AMERICAN TABLOID is the story of the Kennedy assassination, and like his other novels it includes a handful of characters from earlier books, chronicling their progression or (more commonly) disintegration over time.
One of the most interesting things about Ellroy is that with each novel two elements of his writing have progressed noticeably and dramatically: his style, and the characters whom he writes about.
In terms of style, Ellroy has moved from a dense, information-packed style typical of the noir crime novel to something far more impressive: a rapid-fire, slang-laden staccato stream-of-consciousness form of writing that can be hard to get your head around. A typical (of today) Ellroy passage quoted verbatim follows; the all-capitals are his:
The hallway, the kitchen, there–
A clinch: his hands groping, hers grabbing knives.
Slow-motion numb–I couldn’t move. Shock-still frozen, look:
Knives down–in his back, in his neck–twisted in hilt-deep. Bone cracks–Glenda dug in–two hands blood-wet. Miciak thrashing AT HER–
Two more knives snagged–Glenda stabbing blind.
Miciak clawing the rack, up with a cleaver.
I stumbled in close–numb legs–smell the blood–
He stabbed, missed, lurched into the knife rack. She stabbed–his back, his face–blade jabs ripped his cheeks out.
Gurgles/screeches/whines–Miciak dying loud. Knife handles sticking out at odd angles–I threw him down, twisted him, killed him.
Glenda–no screams, this look: SLOW, I’ve been here before.
(from WHITE JAZZ, 1992)
In terms of characters, his early novels typically chronicled that noir staple, the rough-edged cop or detective who was still on the side of justice and all that is good and true and worth loving. But as Ellroy wrote each novel, the characters moved more and more away from the ‘good and true’ and more towards the flat-out corrupt and depraved. The protagonists of AMERICAN TABLOID are bad guys, pure and simple. They’re mobsters, psycho cops, obsessive thrill-seeking military nuts, and every damn one of them is as crooked, corrupt, violent, and vicious as could be. Not a single one is out to follow some code of honor; they are the leg-breakers and the hit-men, the street-level losers and drifters who take the orders of the mob or Hoover or whoever. His latest novels tell the tales of those who do the dirty work and feel no guilt about doing so. Ellroy himself has said that he wants to take crime fiction and give it back to the bad guys, letting them be the stars of the book with no redeeming moral force to bludgeon the reader with a pat ending:
“I want my readers to have an ambiguous response to my characters. I want my readers to identify with my characters on the level of their hidden sexual agendas. I want my readers to say, ‘Man, what a blast it would be to go back to 1952 and beat up faggots.’ Then I want them to realize, ‘Oh, am I really thinking that?’ In AMERICAN TABLOID, I wanted people to think ‘Yeah, what a fuckin’ blast, let’s whack out John F. Kennedy.’ I think crime fiction at its best is touching the fire and getting your hand burned.”
(from an interview in The Armchair Detective, vol. 28 no. 3)
Ellroy is one of my favorite writers. Along with H.P. Lovecraft, I’d credit him as my most substantial inspiration. Where HPL has influenced my attitudes towards writing as an ideal, the work of publishing, and life in general, Ellroy has specifically influenced the way I approach the craft of writing. His books are amazing, awe-inspiring things that leave me gasping like a fish on the beach. Check out anything by him; you won’t be disappointed.