I still remember spring break 2007 like it was yesterday. I was home alone for the entire week and was left up to do whatever I wanted until Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse came out on Friday, which my dad was taking me to to enjoy, along with seven other people as we watched it bomb miserably. Anyways, for some reason I was latched onto the allure of L.A. Confidential, hearing how great the movie was all these years, but for some reason I got the book first and set out on sparsely enjoying it over my break. Except it didn’t happen exactly like that, I became incredibly engrossed in the novel, attempting to make sense in my brain how a book this dense, sprawling and inter-woven could even be created. I was blow away by the uniqueness of storytelling, through a seemingly unlimited cast of characters, the way a picture of Los Angeles of years past was painted so immediately and perfectly and how every step the book took seemed perfectly ordained in some kind of masterpiece laboratory. James Ellroy became my favourite author after just that one book and I became one of those awful people who hocked how much better the book is than the film, even if the film is very, very good, it still couldn’t compete with the novel. I never understood how people said certain books were “unfilmable,” but after reading L.A. Confidential I understood, thus why the movie changes some things in order to make a two-hour movie make some sense.
Fast forward a few years, I’d read the rest of Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, The Black Dahlia being another incredible work and his second best known work, and then The Big Nowhere which I love and has some echoes of scope to L.A. Confidential, but never matches and then finally White Jazz which I enjoyed, but not to the level of the others. And now as I type for some reason the reading bug as hit me again and the thought of “Hey, if James Ellroy is indeed your favourite author you should probably, I dunno, read all of his books.” So, that’s why I’ve been doing, starting from the beginning of his bibliography and filling in the blanks.
I’d always been eager to get my hands on his first three books, but could never track them down, but now in doing so they serve as an interesting portrait to what Ellroy would eventually come. Brown’s Requiem is a solid, if not wholly memorable effort that sets the groundwork for the themes of the detective on the case, femme fatales, lowly street urchins, jaunts to Mexico, and the seedy language and environment that he’d make his name off. Clandestine was an immediate favourite for me, doubling down on the scope from his first novel, and providing that epic sprawling feature that his books always now seem to inhabit. Killer On The Road was an interesting departure, writing in the point of view of a captured serial killer as he documents his killings and evasion from the police. The Lloyd Hopkins trilogy are much more pared down detective novels that focus on Hopkins’ almost solely and his target, and in doing so are invitingly slim and easy to breeze through.
And finally (sorry for all this exposition babble, it’s my worst writing habit), I’ve reached the Underworld Trilogy, a series of books that I have always ben excited to undertake, with the thought of Ellroy’s prose hitting on the 60s era of happenings with the Kennedy’s and political intrigue seemed like too much of a perfect pairing. It’s the perfect way for Ellroy to evolve as a writer, yet still while sticking with what got him to the dance in the first place and what makes his stories tick. American Tabloid is another epic and sprawling tale that follows three men Pete Bondurant, an ex-con, hired gun for whoever is paying, Kemper Boyd, an ambitious FBI agent sent to infiltrate the Kennedy brothers’ organization who gets more than he bargained for and Ward Littell, an FBI agent who has the mentality of a cockroach when it comes to getting a job done, resistance. The book flips back and forth, chapter to chapter between each man as they progress deeper into the poltical underbelly of the late 1950s all the way through John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as president to the Bay of Pigs and ending with the assassination of JFK. The book is an epic and takes these events and expertly places these characters around these happenings in a realistic way that never infringes on history, but plays with it like a dangerous time bomb.
That’s one of Ellroy’s best skills, having his fictional characters interact with very real characters (such as J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hugh, Jimmy Hoffa) and real events that never seem like pandering or resorting to lame jokes in the vein of “Look at this interaction between fictional character and historical character that is only funny to you because of context!!!” It’s one of Ellroy’s best traits that again helps you immediately feel of the times and provides a very real backdrop to these characters and never seems like a gimmick or that he’s unnecessarily namedropping.
Again Ellroy creates a full roster of characters (you basically need to keep track on a separate piece of paper) that weave in and out of each other’s lives and who knowingly and unknowingly cause the downfall of others. As much as the time frame of his novels are celebrated, it’s always the vibrant and realistic characters to a fault that rings true for me. My favourite thing about the treatment of characters by Ellroy is the sort of see-saw rise and fall between the two FBI agents Boyd and Littell. Boyd begins the novel as a hotshot agent tasked to infiltrate and take down the Kennedy’s with full backing from J. Edgar Hoover, while Littell is a somewhat disgraced agent who is scraping by and attempting to remedy his clout with the agency, but messes up a bunch on the way that puts a target on his head. Eventually, without spoiling much, as the book progresses Boyd gets in too deep and his motivations change while he’s exposed to a different life than he’s been used to and it changes him, while Littell pulls himself out of his rut and becomes a a major player and catalyst to the ending events of the novel.
Nothing will touch L.A. Confidential, but American Tabloid gets that spirit and feel of that epic, sprawling historical/crime/political book that only Ellroy can write and something that you just know he feels little pressure to write from the shadows of his past monumental success’ to make another classic. It only gets me more excited to read the rest of the trilogy and again kicking myself for not doing it sooner.