Wednesday, October 14, 2009

James Ellroy: INTENSE!

Another beautiful day here, dark gray and pouring down rain 4 the 2nd day in a row. On days like this I feel like I NEVER really wake up (just perfect that I should live in Washington, where it can rain 4 7 mo's straight), & most days I feel like crap upon waking NEway.
Bsides, I had bad dreams: Something about Bing a musical talent scout 4 Warner Bros Records & trying 2 sweet-talk an unbelievably scared & shy singer-songwriter-guitarist in2 coming up out of the basement she hid in. But she refused. I never saw her, only heard her voice. & at the end, just B4 I woke up, some homeless woman with big frizzy dark hair grabbed my hand & offered me love & affection as she huddled under a blanket.... WTF? I almost never dream....
But enuf of that. I'm sure a potta coffee will help. It usually does. Bsides, I got bigger fish 2 fry, like telling U why U should B reading James Ellroy, even if U think U don't like crime or police-procedural novels. I didn't think I liked them much either.
C, the thing is, Ellroy's brilliant. (It's 2 bad he realizes it, but if I could write this good I'd B arrogant about it, 2. But it's backfiring on him as he gets older: Ellroy's pre-publication hype 4 his latest novel, BLOOD'S A ROVER, came across strongly 2 me as a sorta parody of hyperactive science-fiction/fantasy/suspense writer Harlan Ellison's most obnoxious mannerisms circa 1972. & BLOOD'S A ROVER is an unused old Ellison title. MayB they're really the same guy? Nah....)
Back 2 the Good Stuff. Ellroy's the guy who wrote the novels that led 2 the fairly-recent movies L.A. CONFIDENTIAL & THE BLACK DAHLIA. Haven't Cn the latter, but I know that the 4mer, no matter how good it is (& it's pretty great), just gets U warmed-up 4 what's in the book. (So complex is the plot of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL that an entire sub-plot was left out of the movie, I think in an effort 2 add clarity -- if they'd tried 2 do the whole novel justice the movie woulda bn 6 hrs long. But there R clever tricks in the movie that Rn't in the book, apparently thanx 2 director/screenwriter Curtis Hanson.)
I seemta keep getting sidetracked here. These books, plus their companion THE BIG NOWHERE, R all at least 350 pgs, some push 500, & NO WAY am I gonna try 2 recap or condense the plots of NE of them -- tho all 3 include ugly murders, even uglier psychological pathology, & more complexity than U can keep track of. BIG NOWHERE features a killer who 1st murders his victims then chews on them with animal teeth; L.A. CONFIDENTIAL opens with an ugly multiple-murder at an LA cafe as a cover 4 a heroin deal, then gets uglier from there; BLACK DAHLIA centers around a famous unsolved LA murder case in which a dismembered woman's body is discovered in a vacant lot & the Ntire LAPD goes looking 4 the killer.
But the plots of these books Rn't the point. Tho Ellroy's lurid late-nite settings help drive his novels, & solving ugly crimes motivates the characters thru stories that often build-up a feverish pace, I don't think NE of these R the point either.
Tho Ellroy's '40s & '50s LA settings R nightmarish, I think what really drives him is 2 Dpict, Dspite the harshness of his reality, the NOBILITY of good people Dspite it all -- how they will almost always do what absolutely Must B Done when the chips R down & things R at their absolute toughest. Throughout his books, his characters, men & women, almost always make the tough choice & Do What's Right, even if it may lead 2 their Dstruction.
& this choosing 2 stay on the side of Right, or 2 move 2 it, exalts his characters, redeems them 4 their past sins. In Ellroy's books, a drunken X-cop bagman 4 the mob -- the most worthless X-cop in history -- learns how 2 Bcome a good cop when he teams with driven investigators 2 solve a huge murder conspiracy -- & he Bcomes close friends with the men who inspire him 2 return 2 the side of Right again. (Friendships R VERY important 2 Ellroy: BLACK DAHLIA takes 60 pgs 2 set-up a friendship B4 the Real Story ever starts.) A drunken 4mer drug-addict cop with a dark past who only cares about grabbing headlines helps solve the biggest murder conspiracy in LA history. A call girl retires at 30 2 lead a normal life & Bcomes the only person who can talk honestly & sensibly 2 2 cops investigating a string of murders. Ellroy is a little obsessed with Women As Victims, but his characters R very believable, real people.
These choices 2 always do The Right Thing don't necessarily lead 2 happy Ndings. Idealistic, driven young Officer Danny Upshaw does all the right things in pursuit of his elusive suspect in THE BIG NOWHERE -- & it does nothing but get him in2 trouble. Nobody saves him. Lieutenant Mal Considine in BIG NOWHERE comes 2 a tragic Nd just as it Cms everything is coming 2gether 4 him. & in BLACK DAHLIA, Lee Blanchard gives up EVERYTHING 2 chase the Dahlia's killer -- & mayB Nds up buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Mexico. & lurking Bhind some of these stories is the biggest, most evil, most powerful, crookedest cop in all of L.A., Lt. Dudley Smith, every1's buddy: "Isn't it a GRAND day, lad?"
(I also like the way Ellroy carries-over his characters from book 2 book, even if they're only in supporting roles -- U meet a character in 1 book where he's at the center of the action, & he may return in another where he's in the background somewhere....)
((Ellroy's policemen also have an almost supernatural ability 2 read the Xpressions on people's faces & the looks in people's eyes -- & turn the information held in those looks in2 clues that help solve a complex murder case. Reality may not work Xactly like this, but this ability 2 READ people makes 4 compelling dramatic scenes ... & I wish I had the gift....))
Reading these books, I was reminded just slightly of Lawrence Block's Detective Matthew Scudder novels, set in New York (OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE, THE SINS OF THE FATHERS, TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE, others). Block isn't as long-winded as Ellroy (at least he wasn't at 1st), & he never gets as feverish & headlong in his plots as Ellroy does, but the same insistence on making the Tough But Right choices is there in Block's work.
If Ellroy has a weakness, it's that he sometimes Cms in such a hurry 2 keep the pace cooking that (I think) he contorts the meaning of his writing. It's like he's 2 impatient 2 spell-out what he intends, so he shorthands: "Ran the porn dope past Hudgens. No smut hink." Now I know what that means cos I've read the book, & in context U can roll along with it, but it does sorta bounce U out of the story 2 trip over such short, choppy statements. But it also keeps the book roaring along like a freight train.
Ellroy has almost a dozen other books out there -- WHITE JAZZ, SUICIDE HILL, BECAUSE THE NIGHT, THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, MY DARK PLACES, CLANDESTINE, BROWN'S REQUIEM -- & I'll B looking 4 more. Bogged-down 100 or so pgs in2 the long CLANDESTINE when I tried 2 read it a couple yrs ago. Might B worth trying again.
At his best, Ellroy is REALLY intense. Never boring. A real roller-coaster ride 4 crime-story fans -- & mayB even 4 those who think they RN'T....

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