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Mike Davis – James Ellroy’s Harshest Critic

December 16, 2009

The reviews for James Ellroy’s latest novel Blood’s a Rover have been overwhelming positive. The stature of a novel can change over time, and I suspect that some criticisms of the structure will slowly emerge. However, by and large, readers and reviewers seem to be in agreement that Blood’s a Rover is a thrilling conclusion to Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. One person who will not be giving the novel a good review, I suspect, is the social commentator, urban theorist, historian, political activist and professional James Ellroy-hater, Mike Davis. In his acclaimed work, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (1990), Davis wrote an engrossing study of the socio-economic and cultural problems in Los Angeles. He also used the book to take a few potshots at the novels of the man he loves to hate, James Ellroy:

His Los Angeles Quartet, depending on one’s viewpoint, is either the culmination of the genre, or its reductio ad absurdum. At times an almost unendurable wordstorm of perversity and gore, Quartet attempts to map the history of modern Los Angeles as a secret continuum of sex crimes, satanic conspiracies, and political scandals. For Ellroy, the grisly, unsolved ‘Black Dahlia’ case of 1947 is the crucial symbolic commencement of the postwar era – a local ‘name of the rose’ concealing a larger metaphysical mystery. Yet in building such an all- encompassing noir mythology, Ellroy risks extinguishing the genre’s tensions, and inevitably its power. In his pitch blackness there is no light left to cast shadows and evil becomes a forensic banality. The result feels very much like the actual moral texture of the Reagen-Bush era: a supersaturation of corruption that fails any longer to outrage or even interest.

I do not agree with Davis’ analysis of the Quartet novels here, for instance where in Ellroy’s work do you find ‘Satanic conspiracies’? His work is dark, but he’s not Stephen King. Nor do I think he is guilty of ‘extinguishing the genre’s tension’. Ellroy deserves credit for reinvigorating the crime fiction genre in his revisionism of Los Angeles history in the Quartet and American history in Underworld U.S.A. On the other hand, Davis’ description of Ellroy’s prose style as an ‘unendurable wordstorm’ is quite prophetic. The clipped, sparse, dialectic prose style which is so thrilling in L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992), is taken to extremes in The Cold Six Thousand (2001), and forced dozens of reviewers to give up reading the novel.

Shortly after this contentious, but still reasonable critique of Ellroy’s work, Davis launched another attack on the author in the Chicago Review of Books. This time Davis seemed to give up even attempting to be analytical in his tirade:

Now let me tell you who I can’t stand, and to top the list I would put that neo-Nazi in American writing who is James Ellroy… And to begin with he’s not a good writer. He’s a kind of methamphetamine caricature of Raymond Chandler… Each of his books is practically a Mein Kampf, it’s anti-communistic, it’s anti-Mexican, and it’s racist.

It would be easy to dismiss these words as an angry rant, but if we were to take them seriously it soon becomes clear they are patently false. Firstly, Ellroy has not written a Chandleresque novel since his debut work, Brown’s Requiem (1981). He frequently argues that Chandler’s contribution to the genre is overrated and does not seek to replicate his work, even through caricature. Ellroy is not a neo-Nazi. The novels feature racist asides through the subjective third person narration of characters who are racist. But, even then, the racism is only a casual attribute of the characters and not a defining characteristic. What Davis does not mention is that Ellroy’s novels feature inter-racial relationships, sympatheitic portrayals of homosexuals and men who pay a very high price for their sins. Ellroy would probably consider himself an anti-communist, but so what? Davis seems to consider Ellroy’s work an affront to his own far-Left beliefs, in doing so his criticisms of the author seem shrill and hysterical.

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