Blunt Force Drama: Primer to James Ellroy's Neo-Noir Series
If you’ve seen L.A. Confidential and couldn’t get enough – of the grit-lit meets film noir style; of the golden age glitz of Hollywood meets the top-of-the-fold notoriety of the criminal underworld that destroys all it touches; of sauced-to-the-gills cops on the take; of political corruption osmosed into every abyssal pore of every punk pol and compromised D.A.; of girls-next-door turned call girls cut to look like movie stars; of tabloid sleaze peddlers working overtime as extortion artistes, villains galore, the con within the con within the con – that’s because you haven’t grokked the full picture yet, boyos and baby dolls.
I like to think of the film version of L.A. Confidential as a gateway drug into the seductively seedy, neo-noir universe of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartets. The first of Ellroy’s books turned into a film, it’s also the best (by leaps and bounds). Allow me to be your guide to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet series. Off the record, on the qt, and very hush-hush.
The Canon versus The Quartet 1 and 2
First some general housekeeping: Ellroy satisfies readers distressed by an urgent jones for some inside sleaze on all of the above-mentioned perfidy in what the literary press dubbed The L.A. Quartet 1 and The L.A. Quartet 2. Set in the postwar 1940s and ‘50s, Quartet 1 includes the books The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. (To date, only The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential have made the leap from pulpy page to the silver screen – and The Black Dahlia never truly flowered.) The L.A. Quartet 2 is half-written (or published anyway) and set during the run-up to WWII through V-J Day: Perfidia and This Storm.
For the sake of my questionable sanity and continuity, I’ll be referring to the entire body of fiction as The L.A. Canon.
My rationale: all six books share characters and loosely related storylines.
It’s not necessary to read the books in chronological order. Ellroy colors his stories a tad outside the plot lines. Each book bleeds thematically into the next. He intentionally leaves gaps in the story, misinforms readers via the tabloid press, shades the narrative where misdirection is required and leans into the history of Los Angeles both factual and fictive. (Hence, The L.A. Canon.)
However, if you’re a stickler for chronology, peep The Canon in the following order (at least until Ellroy publishes the final two books):
The Black Dahlia
The Big Nowhere
If you don’t give a flying fig for chronology, I suggest you read them in the order they were published:
The Black Dahlia
The Big Nowhere
L.A. Confidential: Gateway to The L.A. Canon
The penultimate novel of The L.A. Canon, L.A. Confidential introduces fans-to-be to Ellroy’s brutal, yet singular style. Both imbued in print and captured on film, this is usually the first place John Q. Public (i.e., the you’s and me’s of the non-noir, modern world) first meet the dramatis personae. It’s easy to mix up characters and even timelines if you don’t have a keen eye. Ellroy famously saturates his novels with single-scene characters to add depth to the mise en scene. I’ve found it helpful to imagine the faces of the actors from the movie L.A. Confidential since so many appear in other novels of The Canon.
Curtis Hanson, director of the film version, purposefully cast lesser-known actors in main roles supported by more established talent, but there isn’t an unrecognizable name in the bunch today. (1) You can easily reference the actors for your mental motion picture of Ellroy’s L.A. Canon novels too. A quick bit of trivia on the cast: the three main characters were all Aussies. Slightly more scandalous: Kim Basinger was 15 years older than Guy Pierce and Russel Crowe. (2)
Credited cast acting in the film included:
Dudley Smith: James Cromwell
Ed Exley: Guy Pierce
Lynn Bracken: Kim Basinger
Danny DeVito: Sid Hudgens
David Straithairn: Pierce Patchett
Ron Rifkin: D.A. Ellis Loew
Paul Guilfoyle: Mickey Cohen
Darrell Sandeen: “Buzz” Meeks
Uncredited Celebrities included (3):
There’s one character – or should I say cast member – that, absent her, The L.A. Canon would be impossible.
Los Angeles: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation (4)
Despite the Tolstoyan length of the list of protagonists, villains, single scene mooks, and human wallpaper, grips, and gaffers credited at the end of L.A. Confidential, the main character in each novel in The L.A. Canon…is the titular city of Angels in the year-of-our-Lord nineteen-hundred-and-fifty-three. The novel spans from ’51 – to ’58 but the story is condensed considerably for the film.
A menacing, anxiety-inducing, omniscient presence felt heavy with each turn of the page and in the heart of every character, Los Angeles. The city divvies up the spoils and the suffering: either lauding accomplishment with more success (and additional, plot-driving complications) or punishing any hint of failure with kidney stone-level agony (plus, additional complications because no one rides for free); depression compressed down to humiliation size and never-ending creative desolation. Once you’ve dug your hole in Ellroy’s Los Angeles, there’s only one imaginative way to fill it back to the brim. Like the top-grossing animated comic of the era used to opine at the end of his shorts: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! (5)
More sensation than sensation, the Los Angeles of James Ellroy works a twisted algebra to place a value on each character: take their level of opportunism and multiply by their ingenuity, divide by their level of audacity. If you’re rich and/or famous, there’s a whole different calculus for you. This is the Los Angeles of boomtown times. It’s at once the Hollywood of Jack Webb and Chief “Whiskey” Bill Parker, who was “renowned the world over as the reforming Chief of the LAPD” (6) and credited with cleaning up the culture of systemic corruption. (No judgment here, but you gotta wonder how a guy nicknamed “whiskey” got to be chief of anything.) To date, anti-police corruption campaigns continue unabated.
Meanwhile in 1953 Hollywood: the young, smoldering beautiful people-types step off the bus platform impressionable, greedy, and insatiably obsessed with celebrity. The odds, inevitably, favor the house. Come to L.A. only to have your dreams dashed by the ugly, canker-blotched reality of a pre-Me Too world – which was still pretty rough for women and minorities even before Harvey Weinstein came on the scene (inappropriate pun so not intended). A handful of the corn-fed kids get lucky and “get discovered” to become stars. This was not the typical experience of the endless busloads of wide-eyed, clean-cut, high school theater types. These kids just out of their teens find that only certain sorts of work are open for people of their type. Most work in one of Hollywood’s many fine booze, opium, and sexual soiree spots until they’re broken, worn out, used up, and discarded like yesterday’s newspaper (remember newspapers?!). Left for dead but only zonked unconscious at the entrance to the Greyhound garage from whence they came. Or, as in The Black Dahlia, the story only begins when the distraught starlet flings herself from the “H” on the Hollywood sign and falls 45 feet to her death.
History does a backseat ride along
Motoring through the months and years as the plot unfolds chock full of gritty adjectives and pulp-style herrings of all colors (are herrings inclusive? If so, what are their pronouns?), each novel depicts the easy intimacy of the relationship between the L.A.P.D., Hollywood, organized crime, and the ‘Brahmins’ of Los Angeles.
Even if the past is prologue and occasionally twisted tourniquet-tight for the author’s purpose, we suspend our disbelief in favor of gleefully savoring each written word. The truth – if not the facts – has a way of spilling out of The L.A. Canon like an unmentionable afterthought spoken out loud.
L.A. Confidential was partially inspired by several real-life events and people. Most notoriously, the gang war for control of the city’s rackets erupted after mob boss Mickey Cohen was jailed and ‘Bloody Christmas’ – the notorious reprisal beatings of a bunch of Hispanic prisoners by drunken L.A.P.D. cops. (3).
Also fact: screen goddess Lana Turner did have a romance with mobster Johnny Stompanato (yes indeedy, that was his real name). Not mentioned in the movie (but included in the novel) is that Stompanato was abusive toward Turner and that, in 1958, Turner’s teenage daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed him to death, claiming he was assaulting her mother. The stabbing was ruled a justifiable homicide. It was one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of the 1950s. (6)
Although the film was released on the big screen in 1997, the location scouts aced the authenticity exam and unearthed “original” sets from boomtown Los Angeles of 1953 for every scene. The one exception? The “Victory Motel” at the end of the film. Otherwise, the buildings inside and out are pure, dusted off, and shined up in 1953 Los Angeles. (8)
My Favorite Characters
If you were to search Google Earth for the Hollywood sign today: you’d begin in the stratosphere and zoom into the globe and as California fills up your screen, then Los Angeles, over Beachwood Canyon, you’d glide past the last house on Mulholland toward the gracious and stately, familiar SF Hollywood Hills-fronted Hollywood sign. Now set your clock back to Ellroy’s Los Angeles (that’s pre-internet, my Millennial friends) and you’d see the cultural icon falling into disrepair, left derelict post-Peg Entwistle’s suicide, the corn-fed starlet failing in Hollywoodland, who unironically tossed herself off the ”H” in the Hollywood sign and plunged forty-five feet to her death. This is not your father’s Los Angeles. (9)
Despite the neglected appearance of the world’s most famous movie billboard, Hollywood was in the midst of its first Golden Age, circa 1930 through the end of World War II. (10) Everything on camera may appear peachy-keen and hunky-dory, but the first novels of The L.A. Canon fire up the electron microscope for a colonoscopy-level deep dive into a jaded culture of violence, obsession, greed, and the immortality and notoriety of stardom.
Speaking of: there’s no character more imposing and omniscient, more Machiavellian, more prescient of the future, more in command of those around him than arch-villain Dudley Smith. Possessed of an Irish brogue, a baroque, conniving imagination, and the whip intelligence that comes from a Jesuit education, Smith makes appearances in five Ellroy novels The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, Perfidia, and This Storm – always an agent of change, usually for the worse – especially if you were a minority.
Ladies and Gents…The L.A. Canon
Reminiscing in his non-fiction, quasi-autobiographical book L.A.P.D. ’53, Ellroy wedges his definition of film noir into a vignette featuring a black-and-white crime scene photo of a suicide that outlines the scene for his L.A. Series.
“Film Noir is most tellingly a reaction to the 30-year transition that began with World War I and lasted through V-J Day and the beginning of America’s noble effort to resuscitate Europe with the Marshall Plan…War, famine, totalitarian alliance, hundreds of millions dead. War profiteering, coups, overthrows the A-bomb. Refugee film talent, adrift in Hollywood – many artists Jewish and left-wing. The Russian Left betrayed them as Hitler rounded them up and murdered them Now, they’re in Hollywood – working on cheap-o crime flicks and suffused with justifiably paranoid heebie-jeebies.” (11)
Now that we know where the author stands, let’s peruse the other books that comprise The Canon…
The Black Dahlia (1987)
Novel, Film & Graphic Novel
Set in 1947, the first book in the L.A. Quartet The Black Dahlia has less to do with the infamous murders of Hollywood lore and more to do with two of the detectives peripherally working the case: Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard. For your mental motion picture: in the film version of the novel, Josh Harnett plays Bucky and Aaron Eckhart his enigmatic partner, Lee. Partners of convenience and both in love with the same woman, they stumble across the Elizabeth Short crime scene while investigating a series of homosexual murders.
His dear departed sister was murdered when he was still in short pants, Lee takes the murder to heart and wears its weight everywhere he goes. His obsession threatens to overcome his tenuous hold on the jaded, off-color reality of Ellroy’s Los Angeles. Lee is a once-compromised cop and boxer. He’s the closest Ellroy comes to writing a “stand-up guy” type of character, who insists on doing the right thing and denying himself even life’s most basic pleasures. You definitely get the sense he’s stoically doing penance for the sins of a past life.
Conversely, always a go-along-to-get-along sort, Bucky’s pursuit of the killer leads him to an affair with a prostitute whose plastic surgery has transformed her into a dead ringer for Elizabeth Short. Years pass. Thousands of leads were chased down. Lee vanishes. Bucky’s marriage collapses under the psychological strain. “Their quest will take them on a hellish journey through the underbelly of postwar Hollywood, to the core of the dead girl’s twisted life, past extremes of their own psyches – into a region of total madness.” (11) This is Ellroy-Land. He’s called it. It belongs to him now. But he’s more than happy to let us watch. The more the merrier, I think he’d say.
The Big Nowhere (1988)
Enter Ellroy’s world post World War II California. It’s 1950. The bad old days of the Red Scare. Pinkos proliferate. Gangster pimps rule the underworld. Hollywood magic continues unabated – and Howard Hues hush mullah – can flip any script. Cue Danny Upshaw, a Sheriff’s deputy with some murdered homosexual stiffs on his hands and a stiffy to make a big name for himself as a lawman. Recruited by the well-intentioned D.A. bagman Mal Considine, Upshaw joins district attorney Ellis Loew and Ellroy’s supremely crafty creation, the omniscient, charismatic, and connected Irishman, Dudley Smith. “Buzz” Meeks makes his second appearance in The LA Canon, still a cop but with a side gig pimping for Howard Hues and a communist gun-for-hire. Considine recruits Danny to bait the honey trap and seduce a powerful woman with the colorfully apropos sobriquet, “The Red Queen.” (12) Suddenly the communist conspiracy case and the homosexual murder cases collide – dredging up violence, corruption, and a twisted web of lies worthy of its film noir forefathers.
The Big Nowhere so neo-noir it doesn’t even know it.
L.A. Confidential (1990)
Book and Film
Read the book cover to cover and you’ll wonder how the film director fits so many plot lines and characters from different times into a digestible, intelligently spun story. The secret, we learn from Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland (director/co-screenwriter and screenwriter, respectively) to their methodology was a big honking eraser. They literally chopped every “scene from the book that didn’t have the main three cops in it and then worked from those scenes out. Some were too good to let go of: the shootout early in the novel was reworked with two of the main cast parachuted in. It would take three years to complete the final draft of the script. Rumors abounded, but artistic integrity won the day: James Ellroy signed off on their script and Oscar nominations abounded.
In point of historical fact: the film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Production Design, Cinematography, Editing, Score, and Sound Mixing. Alas, L.A. Confidential was released the same year as James Cameron’s epic Titanic, which cleaned up most of those Oscars. Nevertheless, plucky budget-conscious L.A. Confidential did win two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson). (13)
White Jazz (1992)
Sam Giancana wants Mickey Cohen dead.
Say hello to LAPD Lieutenant David Klein and partner George “Junior” Stemmons. They’re ordered to protect a witness in a probe into organized crime in boxing. Klein has a side gig working for Giancana and throws said witness out the window for him to make it look like an accident.
Klein gets yet another side gig from everyone’s favorite Hollywierd producer, Howard Hughes, who is attempting to score some low-down dirt on a starlet named Glenda Bledsoe – anything that would violate the morality clause of her full-service contract (wink, wink, hush-hush). While surveilling Glenda, Klein discovers that she and several show biz types are planning a fake kidnapping. Unable to stop himself, Klein falls in love with Glenda and stiffs Hughes on the scandal shots.
Remember Ed Exley and Dudley Smith? Exley is closer to the catbird seat than ever when he learns Smith has a heroin operation up and running in L.A. that sells exclusively to the black population. He calls this strategy keeping them “contained.”
Exley and Klein team up to take Smith down. For good this time. Of course, Smith manages to slither his way out of the situation by offering Klein a sweet severance package. Eventually, he’s forced to shoot the witness and wings Smith in the process. For his lack of effort, Howard Hughes decides to have Klein taken down a peg and has him beat up. Unable to let go of Smith, Exley sends Klein a package that includes a blank passport and a Saturday night special. The implication couldn’t be more crystal clear.
From his hideout in Rio many years later, Klein plots his return to Los Angeles with the intent of destroying Exley’s gubernatorial campaign, taking revenge on Carlisle and Smith, and find Glenda.
December 6, 1941. The eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor dragged America kicking and screaming into World War II. Not coincidentally, on this inauspicious day in this particular novel, James Ellroy elects to open his second L.A. Quartet. (In case you missed it: there are officially two L.A. Quartets. The first set in the fifties.) The second Quartet begins with Perfidia the day before the “date that will live in infamy” (14). However, the final two novels of the quartet have yet to be published. I maintain that until the final two books have been digested by these eyes, the six aforementioned novels exclusively comprise The Los Angeles Canon.) Anyhoo, it’s December 6, 1941, and jingoism, pro-war patriotism, and racism run rampant.
Dudley Smith of the L.A.P.D. is about as close as you get to a good guy in Perfidia and, frankly, he’s still pretty freakin’ far from good. I’d call him the anti-hero but the depth of his racism knows no bottom. He doesn’t deserve the inclusion of the word hero in his description. No. he’s a villain of the arch variety. An arch-villain, an immigrant criminal lord who knows precisely what to do with the other non-white immigrants. Yet, the man Ellroy paints as capable of being the very root of the L.A.P.D.’s endemic corruption problem, the man for whom both addiction and slavery were merely the tools of his wicked trade – is a doting father with seven daughters, one of dating age. He owns the city and makes sure everyone knows it – when he starts bedding bombshell actress Bette Davis on a semi-regular basis. He gets so big for his britches that he thinks he can merge his criminal life, his life as a cop, and his fantasy self dating Hollywood A-listers. There’s even an unforgettable dinner scene where Smith introduces his daughter to Bette Davis.
Rather than give away the scene, the cast of thousands or the flaws gouged deep into the grooves of time, corruption, and erudition, I give you the inspiration for it all….as the late, great Nat King Cole made famous:
To you, my heart cries out, “Perfidia”
for I found you, the love of my life
in somebody else’s arms
are echoing, “Perfidia”
forgetful of our promise of love
you’re sharing another’s charms
With a sad lament, my dreams have faded
like a broken melody
While the gods of love look down and laugh
at what romantic fools we mortals be.
I know my love is not for you.
And so I take it back with a sigh
Perfidious one, goodbye! (15)
This Storm (2019)
Bloody business as usual for Ellroy, this book kicks off with a couple of simple murders that explode into more plot threads to chase down than is even possible for the author. Make no mistake: Ellroy is busy in this novel. Perhaps because This Storm is his latest novel to date or because the majority of The Canon is inked, Ellroy’s writing suddenly feels free of any editorial constraints that unnecessarily censor his schizophrenic vision, releasing him to create single scene characters by the busload, plot points that interweave history with fiction, scenes that would play out twice as bad in today’s racially charged environment,
Side note: despite the newfound independence, Ellroy never drops the Oxford comma. (He seems more like an AP-style guy to me.)
This Storm casts the spotlight on the heroic and introverted Hideo Ashida: crime scene clean-up, L.A.’s forensic tech, Japanese man hiding in plain sight during internment times, and unlikely quasi-hero of this story. Ashida also happens to be the extremely rare (if not only) non-white character given the privilege of narrating his tale in all of The L.A. Canon.
Meanwhile, back in the novel, Hideo and Dudley Smith discover 16 Japanese dead, all shot by the same police-issue Smith & Wesson .38 special. During his forensic inspection, Hideo discovers gold in the pockets of one of the dead Japanese soldiers. Returning to the submarine, he finds Fort Knox. Dudley cowboys up and promises to keep Hideo’s family out of the internment camps and make him a “protected” officer of the L.A.P.D. Elsewhere, a train robbery frees Japanese prisoners. The gold cargo vanishes. Events snowball and Hideo comes to realize that the only person he could trust was the repulsively corrupt Dudley Smith.
What I Think: Blunt Force Triumph
James Ellroy doesn’t care what you think. He probably doesn’t even care what I think. Or maybe he tells a story in a way that delivers more than the expected resolution and morally satisfying denouement. Instead, he gathers those things together with all of your sacred literary and political cows (chickens, too) and sends them straight off to the abattoir for immediate repurposing.
Take racism. (And get rid of it forever, am I right?) Ellroy’s criminal hierarchy generally runs the rainbow gamut. Unlike some conservative authors of the noir era, Ellroy casts minorities in two-dimensional roles. Usually, these roles tend to be criminal. You might argue that Ellroy was writing to the period and should be allowed literary license to shade his characters accordingly. Others contend that he should write minority characters in a more positive light. The black and white of it is this: James Ellroy doesn’t care what you think. That’s what keeps him interesting. Still…
A day in noir L.A. doesn’t pass without some fuzz framing a minority for some imagined and, usually, equally racist offense. In L.A. Confidential, blacks were the initial suspects in the Nite Owl murders. They’re usually the scapegoats, low-level criminals, or just the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sticking true to cliché, the capital-O “Other” characters are cut to a familiar foreign form: Ace Kwan (presumably Chinese) runs an opium den/cathouse/gambling parlor. Oh and a Chinese restaurant, of course. Mexicans are transients, general laborers, and a drain on the system and law-abiding, land-owning taxpayers. Whites (read: white cops) are top of the food pyramid in Ellroy’s Los Angeles. The great racial equalizer in The L.A. Canon is the grim fate any race meets when rolling the dice for their future against Ellroy (whom I imagine as a maniacal fiend with a God complex, but aren’t all writers?!).
Not until Hideo Ashida takes charge of his first-person narration in Perfidia does the reader get a sneak peek at noir Los Angeles through the peepers of the previously denigrated “Other.” As complex and repulsive as Dudley Smith, if not more so, Ellroy paints Ashida with a fine badger-hair brush. Perhaps the most revealing strokes come at the revelation that Ashida went to Belmont High with Jack Webb (actor from the IRL television series Dragnet, also starring Harry Morgan in his pre-MASH days) and Bucky Bleichert, the latter of whom he crushed on hard. (16)
Ashida’s moral relativism rises quickly to the top of the list as his key attribute. He accidentally kills a kid. But confesses and apologizes to Dudley Smith before going into hiding. He turns his back on other Japanese Americans as they’re rounded up and imprisoned in southern California – just to stay on Dudley Smith’s good side and keep his own ass on the right side of the internment fence.
Despite their era-appropriate (yet still completely inappropriate) attitude toward non-white people, Ellroy’s characters are almost always something more than they appear. Example: Lynn Bracken, played by Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential. On the surface, she’s a dead ringer for actress Veronica Lake, a sultry femme fatale known for her noir flicks with Alan Ladd. (17) The way she walks. The way she talks. The way she’s ultimately beholden to many bosses. Pierce Patchette, the worldly, scheming, rubber-jawed pimp who commands her to sleep with Ed Exley and obtain kompromat. Then there’s the pragmatic woman under the surface, wise enough to have survived the film to the final scene and be rewarded with one final line, “Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.” The Lynn Bracken character is the only one of Patchette’s hookers not to go under the knife to look like a movie star. Ipso facto: a trip home to visit Mom and picking up life as the prodigal beautiful girl next door returns was still a distinct possibility (even with bruiser Bud White at her side).
It is precisely this duality that underscores Bracken’s moral relativism. Sleeping with Ed Exley is business. With Bud White, it’s a lady’s choice. Why? Because for Lynn, sleeping with Bud White is the hope for a real-life in the future; it’s the possibility for a happy ending away from the plastic, transactional, emotionless relationships she endures sans lubrication at the behest of pimp Patchette.
Lorraine Bracco, Geena Davis, Melanie Griffith, Teri Hatcher, Anjelica Huston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, Pamela Anderson, and Rene Russo were among those who turned down the role of Lynn Bracken. (18)
No character more imposing and cunning exists – more Machiavellian, more prescient of the future, more in command of those around him than they even know – arch-villain, man’s man, and copper’s copper…the one and only Dudley Smith. Possessed of an Irish brogue and wit, conniving imagination capable of positively baroque plots, and the whip intelligence that comes from knowing the streets and a proper Jesuit education, Smith makes appearances in five Ellroy novels. Always as an agent of change, mostly for the worse. But The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, Perfidia, and This Storm would be nowhere without him.
In 1938, Dudley Smith beat a man to death for drooling on a coat he got from Bugsy Seigel. By the time he meets his demise – 1958 in the book, 1953 in the film – Smith is a self-righteous Catholic with seven daughters. Nevertheless, in Perfidia, he reminisces about being turned on to smut by Joseph Kennedy himself. He dates and transforms into a powerless green monster over Bette Davis. (19) Not to mention the whole interring the impecunious Japanese while hiding the wealthy ones and forcing the “better looking” ones to act in 8mm porn movies thing. He even extorts Harry Cohn (founder of Columbia Pictures) into investing in his smut operation and providing the cameras!
The fact is: Dudley Smith is the only Ellroy character capable of weaving together all of the storylines in any sort of coherent silky, silver fabric. Smith can occasionally be a character of convenience, deployed to redirect the plot when it appears there’s no way out. We need Dudley Smith to remind us of what’s right and what’s wrong with this picture. Why? Because Ellroy makes the bad look so good and the good look so…Arizona.
Why Can’t We Get Enough of The L.A. Canon?
There’s nothing ordinary under James Ellroy’s sun. Put another way (apologies, but it’s too tempting not to paraphrase): the sun never sets on Ellroy’s L.A. Canon. Of course, things are only just getting interesting when the sun disappears beneath the Pacific. That’s when the shadows come out to play; when good citizens shelter their children inside wholesome homes with locked doors, barred windows, and protestant hearths; when cops power up on caffeine and gear up for the worst (while silently praying for the best); when the city government fat cats and well-heeled V.I.P.’s followed by entourages of various stations (clearly on the take) and people with designs on writing their own ticket vanish mysteriously from the streets. Evaporated like the morning mist, they reappear molecule by molecule and, unbeknownst to those who needn’t knoweth, re-animated where they should not be – where only cruel fate or an auteur of an author like Ellroy finds a place for them. We want to see the rise and fall of the mighty but will settle for the slowly turned screw winding up a character for a fatalistic moment. We want Bud White to ride off into the sunset with Lynn Bracken and that’s as close to closure as Ellroy allows. Only the innocent get shown the door. Except no one is truly innocent in this world. The good guys don’t always white (20) but the bad guys can as easily bang a gavel as murder a diner full of people to silence a single witness.
I think we love The L.A. Canon for the same reason we peruse the tabloid headlines in line at the bodega. We want to feel close enough to touch the stars, but we like it even more when the stars fall to earth – and get (ironically) burned when their salacious public scandals become our secret, delicious schadenfreude. Each novel dwells in its own ecosystem, but one that is familiar, if not recognizable, to the rest of us. Sure, most of us aren’t cops or gangsters. We’re not even big city government-types or millionaire media tycoons. We’re simply not likely to get drawn into a sweeping, life-changing storyline in our humdrum day-to-day lives. But that’s why we have fiction, isn’t it?! Readers may read passively, or actively wonder how they might have played a particular character. I ask you: who doesn’t want to swoop in to save the day? Who doesn’t want to find themselves heroic when the situation presents itself? Who doesn’t want to save the day and take the girl (or boy) home at the end? Of course, you might also swing the other way…and imagine yourself the villain. While I do admit to a certain attraction to leading the life of a noir novel villain myself, I hate the sight of blood so much I can’t even cut my dog’s toenails. Also, spoiler alert(s), I have no interest in dying at the end.
I also think readers are attracted to Ellroy’s characters for the way each is drawn both with a thick, defining line and an almost dainty, luminous shadow. The hard, dark line we know. It’s more than familiar. It’s the news you doom scroll on your phone in the bathroom, where life dutifully imitates art. In The L.A. Canon, its hookers are cut to look like movie stars. It’s Dudley Smith selling heroin exclusively in black neighborhoods; it’s Sid Hudgens setting up Pierce Patchette with a homosexual prostitute; it’s Bud White’s mom getting beaten by his father; it’s Hiro Ashida delivering other Japanese to the authorities; it’s Bucky sleeping with Kay Lake (no relation to Veronica Lake) behind Lee Blanchard’s back (despite their sexless relationship) and so many other characters who other, lesser authors would be tempted to leave hard-boiling on the filthy pavement. That glow that helps illuminate the heart of each character is the moral relativity and agency each character is allowed (and readers accept). Why? Because deep down inside we can empathize – with or against – some of the character’s decisions and actions. When you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, the only direction to go is up or down. Which way would you go? Ellroy games the obvious.
The lighter side of each character is the ostensible agency the author allows them. It’s Jack Vincennes telling Smith about Rollo Tomasi before Smith kills him. That is, it’s a shot at redemption – regardless of how long said shot may prove to be. It’s why we don’t mind Bud White beating up abusive husbands. It’s why Lynn Bracken gets a second chance at life outside of Los Angeles and why she’s forgiven for Exley (and, we assume, countless others). It’s “Whiskey” Bill Parker reforming the L.A.P.D. from a corrupt institution to a questionable institution. It’s the redemption every character has been fighting for whether they know it or not. It’s the difference between plastic surgery L.A. and skid row L.A.
Regardless of how many times Ellroy defies my expectations as a reader, he never fails to top himself as a writer. Like some of his best characters, he’s blunt and brutal, but always capable of further development. Every book Ellroy writes, at least in The L.A. Canon, is better than the next.
Why? How?! To quote Ellroy himself, we love his work because “I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music.” (21)
Appearing as “themselves,” the footage was lifted from vintage press and b-roll
“LAPD ‘53” by James Ellroy and Glynn Martin, p 171
Really!? You didn’t know it was Bugs Bunny? I’m ashamed of you just for checking this endnote!
“LAPD ‘53” by James Ellroy and Glynn Martin
Ellroy, James and Martin, Glynn for the LA Police Museum “LAPD ‘53”, Abrams Books, 2015
Ellroy, James. The Black Dahlia, 1987 Grand Central Publishing
Ellroy, James and Martin, Glynn for the LA Police Museum “LAPD ‘53”, Abrams Books, 2015
Nod to the band “Minor Threat” from their song, “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” circa ‘89
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