Monday, April 3, 2023

COUGAR BLOOD BOIL! - James Ellroy's First L.A. Quartet

Ellroy's mugshot
My one encounter with James Ellroy came in the mid-nineties (probably 1994) at New York Is Book Country. He was hawking his books and asked me to buy the latest, Hollywood Nocturnes. I told him I already had it and everything else as well. He seemed pleased. Then he offered to sign the balloon my friend was carrying. She, of course, let him. With a flourish, he wrote: Cougar Blood Boil! No one could have asked for anything better.

I found James Ellroy during grad school (1989-1991) when I was in the middle of an obsession with true crime. Right after I had seen something about the murder of Liz Short, aka the Black Dahlia, I remembered seeing a book in the mystery section of the mall bookstore called The Black Dahlia (1987). With no idea of the author's name, I had to go through the shelves, book by book. And then I found it, the author someone I'd never heard of before: James Ellroy.

The first sentence just hinted at the dark obsession that the novel would quickly emerge as the core of one of the most intensely haunting and brutal books I had ever read.

I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been - a tag that might equally apply to me.

Narrated by LAPD detective Bucky Bleichert, The Black Dahlia is the story of his friendship with another cop, Lee Blanchard, and his girlfriend, Kay Lake, and the real-life murder in 1947 of Elizabeth Short. Solving Short's murder displaces everything in Bleichert's life, dragging him deeper and deeper into circles of corruption and depravity that would make Caligula blush.

Ellroy took the 1940s Los Angeles of the great film noirs and Raymond Chandler and turned it into a psychotic fantasy hopped up on violence, booze, sex, and racism. Chandler famously wrote : 

down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

This is not the case for Beichert or any of the protagonists in Ellroy's books. They are brutal, liars, drunks, and abusers. Still, some of them still have something buried away that still lets them grasp for justice or deliver vengeance in its absence.

The Black Dahlia changed my attitude toward crime fiction. While I had grown up watching every mystery show imaginable (from the brilliant Rockford Files down to the ridiculous Quincy and anything in between), but I had never developed a taste for crime and mystery novels. This book changed all that. 

Once I had plowed through all of Ellroy's available catalogue I turned to the two best-known hardboiled writers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I still have to read some of their novels, but I quickly burned through all their short stories. Hammett's Continental Op stories and Chandler's Marlowe stories are brilliant. The Black Lizard editions of their books led me to the Black Lizard editions of Chester Himes' series of novels about two black NYPD detectives; Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Those books, all read over 1990 and 1991, set me on the path of reading crime fiction for which I'll be forever grateful.

The Black Dahlia was followed by three more books; The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992). Together, they were called the L.A. Quartet. Each weaves together fictional and historical figures and sets them against the great economic engines of L.A., first home building, then Hollywood, and finally Disney. Ellroy's L.A. is a bottomless-gulletted monster that devours innocence and pukes up sin and corruption. The latter is mere political shenanigans, but the Biblical, soul-destroying stuff. It's not for the timid - it's epically harrowing - but the reward is one of the greatest undertakings in crime writing. (If you like the movie L.A. Confidential - which I do - just know that it eliminated an entire subplot involving a child killer who happens to be the son of a Walt Disney stand-in)

Ellroy's writing is akin to Chandler's but hopped up on speed and booze. As the quartet proceeded, the writing became increasingly elaborate and the storytelling complex and complicated. With White Jazz, he flipped the table. Supposedly in response to his editor's request to trim the book's length, instead of excising sub-plots, he eliminated any words he could. White Jazz is the memoir of a corrupt cop on speed and it reads that way:

Robbery, sweet duty: jack up heist guys and boost their shit.

Work the Commie: phone calls.

Fred Turentine, bug man-yes for five hundred. Pete Bondurant-yes for a grand-and he'd pay the photo guy. Pete, Hush-Hush cozy-more heat on the smear.

 The Women's Jail watch boss ower me; a La Verne Benson update cashed her out. La Verne-prostituion beef number three-no bail, no trial date. La Verne to the phone-suppose we lose your rap sheet-yes! yes! Yes!

Antsy-my standard postmurder shakes. Antsy to itchy-drive.

After not having read anything by Ellroy all the way through in a long time, I'm thinking it might be time for a revisit. At some point, I overdosed. I was exhausted after I finished American Tabloid (1995), the first of the Underworld USA trilogy. I bought the second book, The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and never read it. I never bothered buying the final one, Blood's a Rover (2009), and eventually sold the first two. He'd abandoned the crazed experiment of White Jazz and crafted something too-similar to the Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential but amped up a million white-hot degrees. It just wasn't worth it. 

That was over twenty years ago, so it might be time to revisit Ellroy. I never reneged on my love for the L.A. Quartet. When they came out, I bought copies of Perfidia and This Storm, but I before I go at them, I really think I need to go back to where it all started in The Black Dahlia. 

No comments:

Post a Comment