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State of Play: Scholarship on James Ellroy

September 1, 2018

With the release of my new book The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the major critical works that have been written about the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. Scholarly research is like a pyramid. Every new published work acts as a foundation for other researchers and academics to build on. Whether you agree with it or not, whether you chose to argue against it, every critical piece still has some intrinsic value.

There are far too many journal articles on Ellroy to go into here, but books about the author are still relatively rare. Here’s a lowdown of critical studies on Ellroy, excluding the ones which I have authored and discussed elsewhere.

Peter Wolfe’s Like Hot Knives to the Brain: James Ellroy’s Search for Himself  (2005) was the first full-length critical study of the author and, when I first read it, I confess I didn’t like it. I thought Wolfe’s thesis of tying Ellroy’s fiction to key moments in his life, as though all writing was a form of autobiography, was too reductive as a critical approach. Over the years, I’ve become more appreciative of Wolfe’s work. I can see now that my thesis of Ellroy’s Demon Dog literary persona acting as a form of narrative itself, both on and off the page, evolved in part from Wolfe’s ideas. Wolfe’s scathing assessment of L.A. Confidential, ‘The novel dims much of its luster by being too big, too sprawling, and too full of its own surge’, now seems ahead of its time. I’ve spoken to many Ellroy readers, and I share the view myself, that despite moments of Ellrovian brilliance, L.A. Confidential is the weakest entry in the Los Angeles Quartet.

Anna Flügge contributed a chapter to The Big Somewhere. Her study, James Ellroy and the Novel of Obsession (2010) is a brilliant critical work framing Ellroy’s key novels in what Flügge dubbed an ‘Obsession’ genre. Her work is not just about Ellroy, but also a study of genre theory and its history. Here’s a quote from the work where Flügge discusses the obsessive romanticism of Ellroy’s characters, a trait that might also be found in the author himself:

In Romanticism, the protagonists are often artists or scientists who put their profession above everything else. Their desire to transgress human and ethical limitations makes them great in the eyes of some, but also vicious since they risk utter destruction for their personal quests. They accept that they are alone on their quest, taking others only if they could use them.

If you have ever found yourself confused by Ellroy’s labyrinthine plotting, then Jim Mancall’s James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (2014) is the book for you. Using an A-Z encyclopaedic structure, Mancall expertly dissects the convoluted narratives of every Ellroy novel and short story, providing clarity with both plot synopses and character bios. But it is not just character and plot that interests Mancall, he explores all of the major themes of Ellroy’s writing. Of all the full-length studies on Ellroy, this is the one I find myself returning to the most.

Nathan Ashman’s James Ellroy and Voyeur Fiction is released later this year, and I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy. Unlike Mancall or I, Ashman does not attempt to cover all of Ellroy’s writing career, and limits his focus to the major novels of the LA Quartet and Underworld USA novels. This approach works well as Ashman is able to explore Ellroy’s obsession with voyeurism, and how this manifests itself in sexual desire, the cinema and the reports, memorandums, transcripts and innumerable forms of documents which compose J. Edgar Hoover’s secret archive. If Anna Flügge dubbed Ellroy’s works as the ‘novel of obsession’, then Ashman sees it as ‘voyeur fiction’.

I have no idea which critical studies of his own work Ellroy approves of and which, if any, he dislikes. Ellroy’s opinion of his own work, and the resulting scholarship, is only one strand of the narrative– his verbal and written storytelling will continue to be evaluated as long as there are people reading his work. Ellroy’s great power is his material. And I have no doubt it will be enjoyed for decades to come.



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