When you start to read a new author I have always thought that it’s a smart move not to start with the masterpiece. If you read the best first then the others may not stand up to it. To get a feel for a writer’s tone, style and attitude takes time. Do this with one of the minor works. You do not want to waste the first 100 pages of something that will stay with you for life wondering just where this stuff is coming from and where is it heading.
Of course there are exceptions. Joseph Heller has written some great books but the range and brilliance of “Catch 22” was never matched. He didn’t try to copy this great success. Read “Catch 22” and you will appreciate the talent and restraint in his other work. T.C.Boyle will try and try again to write a great novel. It is his first, “Water Music”, a barnstorming piece of raconteurism, that makes you give him a fifth or sixth chance to entertain.
If you are going to read James Ellroy and you should, at least, think about it, a warm up or two is in order before you approach his magnum opera, the wonderful ” Underworld USA” trilogy. The relentless rat-a-tat repetition and alliteration may not be for everyone. When you read it as a development of his style you appreciate it more as a device to get it down, get it done and move on. Ellroy wants to get it all said in the trilogy. a no bullshit style from a no bullshit guy.
Ellroy is, for me , like Picasso and Captain Beefheart. An artist who has mastered the essentials of his chosen field . He wants to dissemble these parts and build something new. The novels before the trilogy establish him as a leading crime writer. There is a definite progression. Each book is more ambitious as he challenges himself. There are six novels before “The Black Dahlia”.They are good books but if you start with any of these you may wonder what all the fuss about him is about. They are solid noir crime. The three Lloyd Hopkins stories are probably an attempt to establish his own brand. Trouble with getting a career writing about the same character is that you can become repetitive and formulaic (Yes you, Robert Crais).
“Dahlia” was the book that Ellroy was building up to. The fact he waited until he was good enough to do it justice is admirable. It is based on the much publicized murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 1947 but infused by the unsolved murder of Ellroy’s mother 10 years later. If you are going to use this stuff in your fiction then you want to do it right or not at all. Ellroy did it right.
It’s the first of the “L.A. Quartet”. Succeeded by “The Big Nowhere”, “L.A” Confidential” and “White Jazz”. Each spins a web of corruption, crime and immorality underpinning the link between police, government and those with an interest in the keeping or gaining influence. Through the books Ellroy’s style becomes more truncated. Sentences are shorter .Dialogue ,filled with slang and profanity, is stripped down. It reflects his more moral cynicism with the cynical distortions of his characters. He wants to get this shit down quickly and forcefully. The reader is swept along and had better stick with it because the writer is not hanging about. “Post-modern historiographic metafiction” ? Bite me, this stuff is a blast.
The violence in these books is sharp, brutal and shocking. I love Tarentino’s films but he gets nowhere near the abruptness, the banality of the violence in Ellroy’s books. Films have been made of two of the quartet. A contributing factor to their failure to match the immediacy of the books is that they have just not been able to capture the stark inevitability of the violence in them. Ellroy has set the standard for violence in twentieth century art.
Los Angeles has a fine literary tradition which often fuses the bizarre reality of a city of dreamers with equally confused fictional characters. From Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West to John Fante and Bukowski. In cinema, “Chinatown” and the films of Robert Altman complement these. James Ellroy has taken the post war myths and legends of the city given them a good kick to the balls and produced four books which not only belong with the greats but have moved the genre forward.
If you are going to read Ellroy at least one of the first three and then “White Jazz” is a good start. The author had found the style he wanted. He had confronted the major event in his personal life. He now had the balls to approach the defining events of his generation and his country. The “Underworld USA” trilogy are big books about big things. When you know a writer’s style starting a new book by them is a pleasure from page one. It would not do the trilogy justice to walk right up and spend the first 100 pages wondering just what the fuck is going on here…and, believe me, that could happen.