I can think of few more absurd and futile tasks than trying to summarise my reactions to three of Ellroy’s masterpieces which I finished reading some months ago. I am doing so for the sake of the completeness of my records, and in order that I shall have something to return to when I manage to either re-read the books or write more about them. That anyway is my excuse for the following!

White Jazz – 1992

The fourth and final book in The LA Quartet. Ian Rankin said of this book that it ‘is crime fiction’s Ulysses‘ and one can see exactly where he is coming from. Here Ellroy completely abandons traditional narrative and uses a barrage of techniques – press reports,headlines,police reports, letters – and a pace which is too breathtaking to attempt to describe. This is a writer forging his own language and style. And on top of all that it has terror and beauty, emotion and passion. Yet despite the stylistic genius one can still see why Ellroy felt the need after this book to break away from LA, to move to a wider canvas. And hence we come to….

American Tabloid (1995)

The Cold Six Thousand (2001)

These are the first two books in the Underworld USA Trilogy which culminates, in every way, in Blood’s A Rover (2009). Here Ellroy’s subject is nothing less the history of America from 1958 to the early seventies seen through the eyes of right-wing mercenaries, killers, FBI agents, low-lifes and twisted idealists. In the first book Ellroy reverts to his three-man narrative style which he then maintains throughout the trilogy…

  1. American Tabloid : Pete Bondurant, Kemper Boyd, Ward Littell
  2. The Cold Six Thousand: Pete Bondurant, Ward Littell, Wayne Tedrow Junior
  3. Blood’s A Rover : Wayne Tedrow, Dwight Holly, Donald Crutchfield

This is far from absolute (Dwight Holly plays a crucial role in The Cold Six Thousand for instance) but the main narrative interest is in the characters named in each book. Now one, among many, astonishing aspects of this is the way in which Ellroy manages to make characters who have some outward similarities, and are often working closely together, completely separate. To give them each real psychological depth. And of course to make us care about these damaged, dangerous, and often terrifying individuals.

Let us however take Ellroy’s mastery of style, of characterisation, of narrative as given. Although I will say on the last that the reason Blood’s A Rover is in every way the culmination of,  not just the trilogy but possibly Ellroy’s entire oeuvre (and therefore one of, if not the, highest pinnacle mystery writing has ever achieved) is that it marries to the grand historical narrative a gripping mystery plot (which involves robbery rather than murder to make its success even more dazzling, as robbery is much harder to dramatise and mystify). But let us take all these as given and ruminate for a while on the relation of these books to history; on their political, historical and philosophical content.

Clearly Ellroy is not writing a historical novel, mystery or otherwise, in the way that the term is usually understood. He is not saying that this is a factually accurate account of the events – the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Vietnam, Nixon’s election and re-election etc.. What we are being presented with is an alternative version of history. But that too is something of a misnomer. Because the events that happen in the books happened. JFK was shot, King was shot etc.. What Ellroy does is present us with a dramatised and fictionalised account of some of the political and social forces which were in the air at the time. Because of this his account is plausible. I do not ‘believe’ his fictional account to be accurate in every particular, but I do believe in his account, his fictionalisation of those forces. Ellroy’s historical narrative is thus both further from and nearer to the truth than is usual in historical fiction. It is further because he is not concerned with accurate detail – this he uses, very convincingly, to his own ends as a fictional device. But it is closer because the social and political reality which he presents is one which convinces. Or it convinces me anyway. I have written about this before in a very different context (of historical television series – see http://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/of-romans-and-tudors-op/ ). It is Ellroy’s vision which carries me along. Now so dark, so dystopic, is this vision that it can become overwhelming – I think it does so at times in The Cold Six Thousand. And what Ellroy wants is to write a counter-history. This is the opposite of those versions of the history of the 1960’s which are about hope, optimism, youth. Here satanic old men (Hoover and Hughes and various mafia figures) shuffle their pawns in a cruel, dark dance of death, which is without any ideals whatever. The optimism and hope comes from the fact that these very pawns, all in their own way, finally seek some path to redemption. Redemption, as it is a cliche to observe, is an ever-present theme in Ellroy’s work. It is that which prevents the reader from being overwhelmed by the darkness of the vision.

Well these are mere cursory and perfunctory musings which skim the surface of the books. Each is brilliant in its own right. But it is when taken together that the Underworld USA Trilogy, like the LA Quartet, emerges as the complete masterpiece that it is. My entire understanding of the potentials and possibilities of mystery fiction has been transformed by my reading of Ellroy. In some ways though, he is so far ahead of the pack that this does not really change anything. There is Ellroy and there is everyone else. And it would probably be the height of stupidity for anyone else to even attempt to emulate him.