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Ellrovian Prose

December 6, 2010

Words, Words, Words, but did Ellroy become too difficult to read?

One of the most striking features of James Ellroy’s most recent novel Blood’s A Rover (2009), is Ellroy’s return to a more eloquent and explicated prose style after the mixed critical reaction to his clipped, sparse style  in The Cold Six Thousand (2001). It’s interesting to trace the development of Ellroy’s ‘Ellrovian’ prose style. As a writer who has carefully cultivated his own image or ‘Demon Dog’ persona there is a strong possibility that Ellroy may have coined the term Ellrovian himself– he uses it in his memoir The Hilliker Curse (2010) and also in his correspondence with his publishers (which is available to view at his archive at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina).

Ellrovian should be defined simply as ‘in the manner of James Ellroy’, but Ellroy’s first eight novels do not recognisably possess such a unique prose style with which readers have come to associate with the author. Ellrovian prose only became truly noticeable with Ellroy’s ninth novel, LA Confidential (1990), and with that book Ellroy claims it developed almost by accident. Ellroy’s original draft manuscript totalled 809 pages. A senior editor at Warner Books informed Ellroy that the book was too long and needed to be shortened for the sake of publishing costs. Ellroy decided that the narrative was too intricately and precisely plotted to delete any scenes and thus went through the manuscript page by page and sentence by sentence to remove extraneous words. By doing this he reduced the length of the manuscript by over two hundred pages without losing a single scene.

For a novelist whose work is often described as cinematic its interesting to note how this truncated prose style in the novel of LA Confidential is even more sparse and less descriptive than the screenplay to the 1997 film adaptation of LA Confidential. Below is the scene from the novel where Bud White rescues Inez Soto and shoots dead her kidnapper, Sylvester Fitch:

A nude woman spread-eagled on a mattress – bound with neckties, a necktie in her mouth. Bud hit the next room loud.

A fat mulatto at a table – naked, wolfing Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. He put down his spoon, raised his hands. ‘Nossir, don’t want no trouble.’

Bud shot him in the face, pulled a spare piece – bang, bang from the coon’s line of fire. The man hit the floor dead spread – a prime entry wound oozing blood. Bud put the spare in his hand; the front door crashed in. He dumped Rice Krispies on the stiff, called an ambulance.

The screenplay’s version (below) seems much more descriptive and slower in pace for the same scene:


A nude girl (INEZ SOTO) spread-eagled on a mattress. Bound and gagged. Her eyes grow wide at the sight of Bud, then flicker down the hall. Directing him.


Raising the .38, Bud continues along the hall. He looks into an empty kitchen. Up ahead…


SYLVESTER FITCH sits naked on the couch wolfing Rice Krispies and watching cartoons on a flickering TV. He looks up, sees the .38 before he sees Bud beyond it. Fitch sets down his spoon.

Bud shoots him in the face. Dead, Fitch just sits there.

Bud moves behind him. Pulling a spare piece from his ankle holster, Bud fires back at the door from Fitch’s line of fire, then puts the gun in Fitch’s hand.

We hear a crash against the front door. As Fitch slides off the chair to the floor, Bud dumps the Rice Krispies on him.

The prose style would continue to develop in Ellroy’s next novel, White Jazz (1992), which is told from the first-person perspective of Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein. The writing style is even more truncated and telegraphic than LA Confidential and reflects Klein’s panicked, confused voice. Also Klein is narrating events many years after they took place and he is in the grip of a fever dream, the fractured, dissipated style reflects his unreliabilty as a narrator:

All I have is the will to remember. Time revoked/fever dreams – I wake up reaching, afraid I’ll forget. […] Fever – that time burning. I want to go with the music – spin, fall with it.

Ellroy would develop an interesting variation on this prose style in his short stories and novellas. In the short story ‘Hush-Hush’ published in G.Q. magazine in 1998, events are narrated by the tabloid magazine Hush-Hush columnist Danny Getchell. Getchell speaks entirely in alliterative and onomatopoeic sentences. He seems incapable of saying a word without following it with four or five other words beginning with the same letter:

I alakazammed to Allah, genuflected to Jesus, and called out to that cat the kikes call God. I said I’d keester communists and bash ban-the-bombers, and dig up dirt on that dowager dyke Eleanor Roosevelt. I’d donate dough to a Moslem mosque. I’d put in with Pat Boone, wear white buck shoes, and warble at a Billy Graham Crusade. I wouldn’t print my piece on Rabbi R.R. Ravitz and that Hebrew-school Hannah he humped last Hanukkah.

This makes for challenging reading which occasionally veers into tedium. It’s not often that I would say anything Ellroy has written is dull, but some of his short stories have their dull moments. Getchell does come up with one killer punchline to explain his speech patterns:

I told him how my meshugenah mom mistreated me. She only let me read one book: a thick thesaurus.

It was not until the publication of The Cold Six Thousand that Ellroy would face severe criticism for his use of Ellrovian prose. The language is more staccato and pared down than in any preceding novel, but it is far more uncompromisingly dry than the colourful and surreal narration of Klein in White Jazz. Ellroy has since admitted that he took the style too far. The novel is difficult to read but immensely rewarding. As a reader you have to brace yourself to the fact you are going to see the story from the perspective of racist and amoral characters. In an interview with Craig MacDonald, Ellroy described the first two sentences of the novel as a warning. They read:

They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee. He wasn’t sure he could do it.

It’s fair to say that Ellroy took the more extreme aspects of Ellrovian prose as far as it could go in The Cold Six Thousand, and his return to a more accessible style is exciting and welcome. For a hint at what Ellroy’s next novel Perfidia will be like, the first of four novels which will be a prequel to the original LA Quartet, take a look at Los Angeles Magazine’s latest interview with him. It seems we will be seeing the young Dudley Smith fall in love with a certain nurse named Geneva Hilliker!

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