James Ellroy was born Mar. 4, 1948, in Beverly Hills, Calif. But there was no silver spoon in his mouth, and he didn’t stay long in such rarefied parts – no longer than it took his parents to drive him back to their family home in the gritty Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. By the time he was six, his parents had split. By the time he was ten, he and his mother had taken up residence in the hot, dusty, decidedly blue-collar suburb of El Monte. Within weeks of their move, his mother was murdered, her body dumped in a weed-filled vacant lot. Ellroy moved. back in with his father and began a career of burglary and petty larceny fueled by an ever-escalating intake of alcohol and various illegal drugs.
Then, in 1978, an unemployed and seemingly unemployable high-school dropout, he sat down to begin work on his first novel, Brown’s Requiem. A not quite run-of-the-mill but also not really distinguished crime novel, Brown’s Requiem, finally saw print, as a paperback original, in 1981. His second novel, a year later, marked a giant step forward for his new career. Clandestine not only caught the attention of crime fiction fans all over
the country, it was also nominated for the Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America for Best Original Paperback Mystery Novel of 1982.
Unfortunately, Ellroy didn’t immediately devote his full attention to this new artistic direction he had opened up for himself. Reportedly on the dubious advice of his editor at The Mysterious Press (the small, specialized publishing house that brought out most of Ellroy’s early novels), he tried his hand at creating a series character.
His next three books – Blood on the Moon, Because the Night, and Suicide Hill – recounted the doings of Los Angeles police officer Lloyd Hopkins. He abandoned that whole ongoing series character shtick in the mid-1980s. Then, after a remarkable transitional novel called Killer on the Road (original title: Silent Terror), a harrowing portrait of the life and career of a serial killer, Ellroy returned to the fictional world he had first begun delineating in Clandestine. And over the next five years, by burrowing ev~r deeper into that world, he seemed at last to have found his own authentic vision and voice and emerged as the first writer of crime fiction since the late Kenneth Millar (“Ross Macdonald”) to lay genuine, solid claim to a mainstream reputation as an important literary talent. Andre Gide says somewhere that one of the most exciting of the various artistic possibilities inherent in the detective story is its ability to portray the world as a place in which no one is to be trusted, a place in which every- one suspects everyone else, a place which cannot, at least initially, be understood or made sense of at all, presumably because someone (or perhaps several someones?), for mysterious motives of their own, are withholding information perhaps information about some fateful event(s) far in the past – which alone can account for the world as we find it.
This is the Los Angeles of the late ’40s and ’50s as it unfolds in James Ellroy’s five big novels of crime and corruption in southern California: Clandestine (1982), The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992). Ellroy’s L.A. is a place where no one can be trusted – not your father, not your mother, not your lover, not
Ellroy is the first writer of crime fiction since Kenneth Millar to lay claim to a mainstream reputation as an important literary talent.
your friends, least of all the police – and where understanding (which comes at all only to the most diligent and indefatigable of investigators) comes always at the cost of disillusionment and despair.
Clandestine is set in the early ’50s and told from the point of view of a young Los Angeles cop named Fred Underhill. “During the dark, cold winter of 1951,” Underhill tells us in the very first paragraph of his story, “I worked Wilshire Patrol, played a lot of golf, and sought out the company of lonely women for one-night stands.”
One of these lonely women is a strange, sad lady named Maggie Cadwallader, whom Underhill picks up in a Western Avenue bar called the Silver Star. Shortly after spending one lonely night with her, Underhill finds himself at a murder scene – an apartment in which a young, attractive woman has been strangled and stabbed to death – looking at a book of matches from the Silver Star. Then Maggie Cadwallader herself (whom Underhill hasn’t seen since their one lonely night together) turns up strangled to death in her apartment a few weeks later. On his own time, follow- ing his own hunches and his own intuition, Underhill begins investigating the case. And within days he amasses what seems to him to be almost enough evidence to justify arresting and charging a suspect, a gambler and womanizer named Eddie Engels. Underhill takes his evidence to his commanding officer, and his commanding officer calls in Dudley Smith.
“Dudley Smith,” Underhill tells us, “was a lieutenant in the homicide bureau, a fearsome personage and legendary cop who had killed five men in the line of duty. Irish-born and Los Angeles-raised, he still clung tenaciously to his high-pitched, musical brogue, which was as finely tuned as a Stradivarius. He often lectured at the academy on interrogation techniques, and I remembered how that brogue could be alternately soothing or brutal, inquisitive or dumbfounded, sympathetic or filled with pious rage.”
Shortly after his first face-to-face meeting with Smith, Underhill learns something else about the legendary homicide cop. “A lot of people think Dudley’s nuts,” Officer Mike Breuning, one of Smith’s top proteges and sycophants within the department, tells Underhill, “but he’s not. He’s nuts like a fox.”
“You have to know Dudley,” Breuning continues. “I know him real well. Since I was a rookie. He’s still pissed off about the Dahlia. He told me the Engels case is his penance for not catching the guy who sliced her.”
Underhill gives this idea a moment’s thought, then raises an objection: “He wasn’t in charge of the entire investigation, Mike. The whole L.A.P.D. and sheriff’s department couldn’t find the killer. It wasn’t Dudley’s fault.”
“I know,” Breuning replies, “but he took it that way. He’s a religious man, and. he’s taking the Engels thing real personal. The reason I’m bringing all this up is that Dudley wants to make you his number one man. He says you’ve got the ‘stuff to go all the way in the department. That’s no skin off my ass, I like being a sergeant in the bureau. But you’ve got to play it Dudley’s way. I can tell you’re not scared of him, and that’s bad. If you cross him, he’ll fuck you for real.”
“I was at the academy when the Black Dahlia investigation was going on,” Underhill tells us. “Smith was in charge of rounding up all known sex criminals in Los Angeles. After finishing his lecture, applause-loving actor that he was, he told us about the kind of ‘human scum’ with which he was dealing. He told us that he had heard things and seen things and done things in his search for the killer ‘of that tragic, thrill-seeking colleen, Elizabeth Short,’ that he hoped we, the ‘cream of Los Angeles manhood,’ about to enter ‘the grandest calling on God’s earth’ would never have to hear or see or do.”
But, Underhill muses, “Elizabeth Short’s killer was never found –
In Ellroy’s L.A., the cops and the criminals and the politicials and the lawyers are all really in the same business – the force business.
which meant that Dudley Smith was human, and fallible.”
Actually, however, as we know if we have read Ellroy’s seventh novel, The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short’s killer was found. It’s just that she was never publicly exposed and prosecuted for her crime.
The Black Dahlia opens in 1942, when former light heavyweight boxer and would-be Los Angeles policeman Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is a new academy graduate just beginning his career in law enforcement. It ends seven years later, after Bleichert has’ finally solved the Black Dahlia case
and left the force, keeping his solution to himself. Dudley Smith never shows his face in this novel, despite what we have been told in Clandestine about the centrality of the role he played in the L.A.P .D.’ s official investigation of the case. In point of fact, no one in the official investigation of the Dahlia case has more than a walk-on in Ellroy’s novel about the case. The Black Dahlia isn’t really about the abortive official investigation the case touched off at all; it’s about how the case impacted two relatively low ranking cops who were only peripheral to the main thrust of the official investigation, but who were also the only members of the L.A.P.D. whoever got to the bottom of things and actually found out who tortured and murdered Elizabeth Short – and why.
The Big Nowhere (1988) begins on New Year’s Eve, 1949, a few months after Bucky Bleichert discovers the final truth about the Black Dahlia case, and ends a few weeks later, at about the same time Fred Underhill picks up Maggie Cadwallader in the Silver Star. L.A. Confidential (1990) begins late in February of 1950, at exactly the point where The Big Nowhere left· off; it itself leaves off in the spring of 1958, nearly three years after Underhill, long detached from the L.A.P.D., identifies and metes out his own personal justice to Maggie’s murderer. White jazz (1992) begins in the fall of 1958, when the events of L.A. Confidential are only a few months old, and ends early the following year – in 1959.
These last three Ellroy novels – The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White jazz – tell what amounts to one long, complicated, labyrinthine story interwoven with and periodically interrupted by a number of shorter, less complicated stories. These shorter and less complicated stories are wor- thy in themselves. They are expertly written, wrenchingly believable, and page-turningly compelling. There is, for example, the story of Danny Upshaw, the young L.A. County sheriff’s deputy in The Big Nowhere who’s not only afraid to come out of the closet in the Los Angeles of 1950 but also afraid to admit his homosexuality even to himself – an earnest, ambitious young man who obstinately sticks with a case he’s been ordered to layoff until his compulsive, monomaniacally thorough investigation brings him face to face with … Dudley Smith. There’s the story of Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential – cynical, crooked cop on the outside, self-loathing idealist on the inside – who persists doggedly in an investigation that leads him straight to . . . Dudley Smith. There’s the story of L.A. police lieutenant David Klein in White jazz, an· old man near death, reminiscing about the days of his youth in Los Angeles in the ’50s and the year he raced against time to dig up the dirt he needed to hold his enemies at bay and keep himself both alive and out of prison, and how, when he tracked down the last fugitive trace of truth in the case he was working, he found himself staring into the beady brown eyes of … Dudley Smith.
For some mysterious reason, reviewers and commentators on Ellroy’s fiction have fallen into the habit of describing The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz as a “series” or “quartet” of novels about crime and corruption in the Los Angeles of the ’40s and ’50s. But actually, the quartet is a quintet,
Ellroy’s L.A. is a place where no one can be trusted – not your father, not your mother, not your lover, not your friends, least of all the police.
and the first volume is not The Black Dahlia, but Clandestine. For the longer one reflects on this series of interrelated novels, the more obvious it seems that the character with the best claim to being considered”central,” the character around whom most of the rest of the fictional action tends to revolve and resolve, is Dudley Smith.
If you haven’t yet read any of James Ellroy’s crime fiction, take my advice: read Clandestine first. It’s the indispensable first volume in the saga of Dudley Smith, the book which introduces us to Smith and prepares the way for everything we subsequently (to our increasing horror) find out about him.
And if you feel the need to skip any part of the story, if the thought of reading your way through 2,000 pages of hard-boiled prose, no matter how accomplished, is more than you can bear, the volume to skip is The Black Dahlia. It’s a good book, but it doesn’t directly pertain to the saga of Dudley Smith, and the saga of Dudley Smith is what the rest of the set is really all about.
Smith is a vivid, fully realized character, one of the all-time great villains in crime fiction. And the backdrop against which his story plays out – the backdrop of ’50s L.A. with its violence, its corruption, its hookers and grifters and zoot suiters, its politicians and movie stars and communists, its country clubs and jazz joints and dry, faceless suburbs, its gangsterism and its self-righteous crusades – is, if anything, even more vivid than Smith himself. Moreover, Ellroy’s L.A. quartet (or quintet, if you want to include The Black Dahlia) is effective not only as melodrama, but also as fictionalized social history. For though the dark and perhaps somewhat peculiar perspective Ellroy brings to bear on the Los Angeles Police Department and on police work in general in this series of novels doubtless owes a good deal to what seems to be his generally gloomy and misanthropic view of the world, it is also quite accurate – certainly to the spirit, if not to the letter, of the historical record.
In Ellroy’s L.A., the cops and the criminals and the politicians and the lawyers are all really in the same business – the force business, the business of using power to compel other people to do one’s bidding, whatever (and whoever’s) that bidding may be. And numerous of Ellroy’s characters, both major and minor, move back and forth from one branch of the business to another, rather in the way that people in Washington move from the university campus to the think tank and from there to the newspaper or magazine job and from there to public office.
This is the way real life works, not only in Washington and Los Angeles, but everywhere, and not only in the ’50s, but everywhen. James Ellroy knows this, and he tells what he knows, shows what he knows, more convincingly than anyone else now working the same side of the street.
This is what makes his crime fiction particularly interesting from a libertarian point of view – the fact that it derives from an essentially anarchist vision of politics.
That vision has become more explicit, much more explicit, in Ellroy’s work since White Jazz was published in 1992. In American Tabloid (1995), the first volume of a new trilogy of novels about, as Ellroy puts it, “bad men doing bad things in the name of authority,” we are shown, in intricate, obsessive detail: a bunch of mobsters disgruntled by Bobby Kennedy’s rackets investigations and by Jack Kennedy’s disinclination to roll back Castro’s revolution and get their Havana casinos back for them; a bunch of rogue FBI and CIA covert ops specialists disgruntled by the administration’s disinclination to roll back Castro’s revolution and stand up to communism 90 miles off our shores; and an ad hoc coalition between these, two forces that brings down a president.
In the second volume of this trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand, published last year, we are shown, in intricate, obsessive detail, the gradual growth and ultimate triumph of a plot by the same two forces to take out Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
In both these later novels, as in the series of earlier ones devoted to crime and official corruption in Los Angeles in the’40s and ’50s, one long, complicated, labyrinthine story is interwoven with and periodically interrupted by a number of shorter, less complicated stories. American Tabloid contains, most prominently, the shorter, less complicated stories of its three viewpoint characters: Pete Bondurant, Kemper Boyd, and Ward J. Littell. Bondurant is a one-time L.A. County sheriff’s deputy of French Canadian ancestry who gets kicked off the force for beating a prisoner to death, then turns bodyguard and drug procurer for Howard Hughes. That’s only his day job, though. When he isn’t busy with Hughes, he runs a blackmail operation in partnership with his girlfriend, who has sex with important, wealthy, blackmailable men while Pete takes incriminating pictures. He also freelances as a strongarm or hitman for, among other clients, Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa flies Pete to Florida to get rid of an associate who’s proved disloyal. Pete gets rid of him, “with extreme prejudice,” as some might say. But he’s caught – in the sense of “observed” – in the act.
Who observes him doesn’t really matter in’ the present context. What matters is that the eyewitness evidence gives FBI agents Kemper Boyd and Ward Littell leverage over Pete. It enables them to pressure him into cooperating with them. What they want him to do is help them locate a woman who can seduce the rather easily seducible Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a woman who will allow them to photograph her and tape-record her en flagrante with the priapic senator; then they want him to pass the results along to the proper people at Hush-Hush magazine (an entirely fictional publication devoted entirely to “scandal,” and clearly modeled on one of the great pulp successes of 1950s magazine publishing, Confidential), which Pete’s regular employer, Howard Hughes, has recently acquired. Pete obligingly finds them Barb, a lackluster lounge singer and all-around gal on the make who is happy to see what she can do with JFK and happy to have it recorded in intimate detail, so long as the money’s good. The operation goes forward.
Kemper Boyd is spearheading the operation. Boyd is acting under direct orders from J. Edgar Hoover, who wants to keep an eye on both Kennedy boys – Jack and Bobby – and accumulate information that will tend to defuse any threat they might pose to
Is there any real difference between the day-to-day conduct of the U.S. government and the day-to-day conduct of the Mafia?
his empire. Hoover has already planted Boyd as a mole in the staff of the Senate select committee conducting investigations. into labor racketeering, to which RFK is chief counsel. At the behest of RFK, the committee is focusing its investigative energy on James R. Hoffa of the Teamsters Union. Boyd is reporting faithfully to Hoover, and the transcripts of the secret phone calls that pass between them provide one of the novel’s most deft and delightful characterizations – that of J. Edgar Hoover. But Boyd is telling Hoover only what Boyd feels he needs to know. In his spare time he’s cozying up to the Kennedys, inveigling a job with the JFK for President campaign which he’s sure is going to form in the near future. Then, on his trips down to Miami to “investigate” Hoffa’s south Florida activities for the committee, he meets a couple of contract CIA agents named John Stanton and Chuck Rogers. They recruit him for a CIA operation designed to arm and train a force of Cuban exiles to invade the island and overthrow the newly established Castro regime – an operation funded by sales of heroin in South Florida.
Now Boyd has three jobs and three paychecks, which makes it a lot easier for him to live in the style he’s always envied and to which he’d love to become accustomed. His jobs also put him in close contact with men of wealth and power on both sides of the lawmen to whom he can cozy up and with whom he can gradually win a certain influence. When one of those three jobs requires him to bug Jack Kennedy and produce some usable dirt on him for the FBI director, he brings his old friend and fellow FBI agent Ward Littell into the picture. Littell is one of the best bug men to be found anywhere, and though he’s a former Jesuit seminarian with a passionate admiration for the Kennedys, he can be expected to come in on the job as desired because in return he might be taken off his current beat – spying on American Communist Party members, which he regards as a waste of his and the bureau’s time- and reassigned to the organized crime unit, where he desperately longs to work.
The Cold Six Thousand retains two of these three viewpoint characters – the two who survive the earlier novel – and extends their stories. It also introduces a third viewpoint character, Las Vegas cop Wayne Tedrow Jr., who is handed $6,000 and sent to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, by the Las Vegas Casino Operators Council. “They sent him to Dallas,” Ellroy tells us in the first sentence of his latest novel, “to kill a nig- ger pimp named Wendell Durfee. He wasn’t sure he could do it.” Durfee had killed a casino employee during a recent visit to Vegas, and Wayne was sent to handle ‘the matter partly to test his mettle. When he gets to Dallas he walks straight into the assassination plot, meets the principals, and winds up working directly for and with them in yet another entangled web of alliances between the CIA, organized crime, the Ku Klux Klan, and the FBI – a web which, within five years, yields up two more assassinations and further cements in place the ‘foundations of the real power in American society.
The third volume of Ellroy’s new trilogy, tentatively titled Police Gazette, is now being written. Taken together, the three volumes of the “Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy,” as he calls it, provide a sort of dramatized revisionist history of the IS-year period between 19S8 and 1973. They are about more – far more – than just crime. “What I’m interested in now,” Ellroy told a Salon interviewer in December of 1996, “is politics as crime.”
And, of course, looked at from a libertarian perspective, that’s precisely what politics is – crime, organized crime. Is there any real difference between the day-to-day conduct of the U.s. government and the day-to-day conduct of the Mafia? Both run a protection racket – only it’s called “taxation” when the government does it. Both use force to get what they want. Ellroy sees this with a rare clarity, and that fact makes his recent fiction all the more fascinating when it is examined from a libertarian perspective.
Ellroy provides no anarchist rhetoric, of course. He is a novelist, not a political philosopher. As Ayn Rand noted in The Romantic Manifesto,
Teaching is not the purpose of an art work, any more than it is the purpose of an airplane. Just as one can learn a great deal from an airplane by studying it or taking it apart, so one can learn a great deal from an artwork – about the nature of man, of his soul, of his existence. But these are merely fringe benefits. The primary purpose of an airplane is not to teach man how to fly, but to give him the actual experience of flying. So is the primary purpose of an artwork. (p. 171)
One can learn a great deal from James Ellroy’s recent fiction – about the nature of the U.S. government, about the people and forces behind the events that transformed the 1960s. But these are merely fringe benefits. The primary purpose of these novels is to give their readers the actual experience of reliving recent American history with the blinders of conventional wisdom removed and the doors of perception cleansed.
The best news, however, is yet to come. What does it tell us that these novels have reached so vast and so enthusiastic a readership? What does it tell us that Ellroy’s fictionalized treatment of the JFK assassination – American Tabloid – was named the best fiction book of 1995 by no less mainstream a publication than Time magazine? As I observed a few years ago in my book In Praise of Decadence, “the writers who gain the widest fame and favor with the public in any given period are the writers who do the best job of reflecting back to that public whatever are its own major preoccupations – the ideas, the dreams, the notions of what things in life are the most and least important, most and least worthy of a person’s attention and concern.” To judge by the enthusiasm with which it has greeted James Ellroy’s dark novels of “politics as crime,” the American public of today finds it very plausible that the murder- ers of JFK, RFK, and MLK were no “lone madmen” acting on their own; that branches of the U.s. government have cooperated with organized crime in the attainment of mutual goals; that branches of the U.s. government have manufactured and retailed heroin, sanctioned and even funded acts of arson, bombing, and murder, and worked to eliminate democratically elected officials whose policies were found to be inconvenient – in a word, that, at root, politics is crime.