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The Ellroy Backlash

February 1, 2019
Ellroy Manchester

James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester

This is a tough question for me to ask, but if you’re a James Ellroy fan then perhaps you’ve already pondered it, so here goes – is James Ellroy losing his touch?

I’ve decided to broach the subject as the critical response to Ellroy’s last novel Perfidia was mixed, as were the reviews for his novel before that Blood’s a Rover. The author Peter Corris put it in typically blunt Australian fashion: ‘I think he’s (Ellroy) disappeared up his own arsehole as a stylist’. Occasionally, I see comments on social media that are quite disparaging of Ellroy’s recent work. Now I shouldn’t pay too much, if any, attention to trolls, but it’s worth noting sometimes that readers and fans can be more honest and straightforward than critics. I’ve sensed a certain weariness about Ellroy’s recent efforts when I talk with fans of the author. To be clear, I admired Blood’s a Rover and I enjoyed Perfidia much more by comparison. But upon revisiting Perfidia, I was surprised by the number of issues that troubled me — Dudley Smith’s parentage of Elizabeth Short chief among them.

So Ellroy cannot expect his new novel This Storm to be met with universal acclaim as critical opinion has started to shift. In fact, the opposite may be the case. Ellroy may have to win back some critics who are getting cynical about the author’s once unassailable reputation. But that may be a positive development for a writer who still prides himself on being a polemicist. Looking back over Ellroy’s career, it is clear that the Demon Dog has found himself out of favour with critics before and has produced some of his best work during these periods.

Ellroy struggled to receive any critical attention for his first six novels. Some modern critics still use Ellroy’s seventh and breakthrough novel The Black Dahlia as the starting point in examining his writing. Early works such as Brown’s Requiem and the Lloyd Hopkins series have much to commend them. Aside from the Chandleresque private-eye narrative of Ellroy’s debut Brown’s Requiem, there is an intriguing subplot about the leading character, Fritz Brown’s, friendship with a down on his luck alcoholic named Walter. I have written before on how the character Walter was inspired by Ellroy’s real-life chum Randy Rice, and this provided one of the strongest aspects of the novel. The Brown/Walter relationship does little to further the plot. They spend most of their time riffing on the big questions: life, love and the Black Dahlia case. When Walter dies prematurely of natural causes Brown is left devastated. His friendship with Walter was redemptive, and it is just as important to him as solving the violent case at the heart of the narrative. It is to Ellroy’s credit that he had the ambition and foresight as a first-time novelist to create this relationship. I can’t imagine an editor being keen on it. They would have preferred, perhaps, for Walter to have been murdered by the villain, leaving Brown hungry for revenge.

Brown’s Requiem received scant attention from critics, but Ellroy was soon to make a name for himself. 1987 to 1996 and the publication of the LA Quartet novels might be considered Ellroy’s Golden Age. Ellroy would benefit by a return to the relatively short length, but epic scope, of novels such as The Black Dahlia and White Jazz. While some Ellroy readers cite American Tabloid as the apotheosis of his writing genius, for me he achieved this with its follow-up The Cold Six Thousand despite the lukewarm critical response. Reviewers began to mock his writing style, as Tom Cox put it, ‘James Stops. James Thinks. James Writes a Sequel’, and many fans gave up on it long before reaching the final page. I think the novel was lumbered with a notoriety it never truly deserved. I’m not just saying that to sound like the type of critic who defends Finnegan’s Wake. It is genuinely one of my favourite Ellroy works. There is not a sentence present which does not propel the story forward, and what an incredible narrative it is. Beginning on the day of JFK’s assassination, Ellroy takes us through the Mob’s infiltration of Las Vegas via their Mormon- loving vampiric front-man Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover’s increasingly desperate COINTELPRO operations against the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and ending with assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. By its coda you really feel that Ellroy has taken you on a journey through this Underworld era. In short, it has everything we have come to expect from an epic Ellrovian history.

It’s a shame to think that the negative reviews of Cold Six sent Ellroy on the stylistic experiments aimed at winning back critical approval, only to ironically push it further away. Ellroy suffered a nervous breakdown, partly as a result of the gruelling publicity tour for Cold Six, which he candidly detailed in The Hilliker Curse as leading to a relapse into addiction and the dissolution of his second marriage. It was a difficult time for the author but his ambition didn’t falter. He hasn’t reverted into any old generic tropes in his recent output, but I do feel that his last few novels aren’t as stylistically rigorous as his best work.

Although reviewers may have turned against Ellroy, scholarly interest in the author is growing. Two studies of Ellroy were published last year and academics are increasingly putting his work on module reading lists. I no longer feel like the only Ellroy scholar in the room. But more important than Ellroy’s critical reputation at any given time is that readers are still, by and large, tremendously excited about This Storm and the narrative direction of the Second LA Quartet. I’ve no doubt there will be issues in the text that will need to be grappled with. Ellroy writes epic works and the potential for the narrative to drift off-course, even for a briefest moment, are higher as a consequence. But if you’ve read this far then the chances are you are an Ellroy fan, and if you’re the type of fan who has made your way through the entire body of work then there will naturally be certain texts you didn’t like. Ellroy has always been inclined to take risks rather than just give the readers what they want, and that’s what makes him the Demon Dog of American crime fiction. I, for one, am not losing faith in that.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    February 2, 2019 1:59 pm

    Great question that I’m afraid can’t be adequately answered in a comments section. I hadn’t been aware of a fan backlash against the last couple of books until a few months ago when I first came across the Ellroy Facebook page that Jason Carter is involved in (there aren’t exactly a multitude of online locations for dedicated Ellroy discussion). And yes, there was definitely some harsh criticism to be found there.

    Maybe I’m just hopelessly addicted to the Ellroy Kool-Aid (hey, I like the Danny Getchell stories), but I enjoyed Blood’s a Rover and loved Perfidia. There were definitely some issues that I noticed, but individual flaws didn’t prevent me from being fascinated by the books as a whole.

    The one instance where I really struggled the first time around was LAPD ’53, which of course is a very different type of book than a novel. I’ve had a better grip on it after re-reading, but the “hep-cat” writing style Ellroy used there was really bizarre especially considering the subject matter of photographs from actual crime scenes.

    • February 2, 2019 2:13 pm

      Thanks Dan, some great points. Speaking of LAPD 53 it’s basically a rehash of Scene of the Crime: Photographs from the LAPD Archive. It’s expensive but if you like your Ellroy rare and with hep-cat style toned down then it’s a book for you.

      • Dan permalink
        February 2, 2019 9:10 pm

        Thanks Steve-I’ve considered Scene of the Crime in the past but am worried there isn’t much Ellroy outside of the Introduction.

        For me personally the question of Ellroy losing his touch or writing “weak” books recently is all relative. If I was forced to rank his “major” novels since the Black Dahlia, then I agree that Blood’s a Rover would be at the bottom, which is not to say I think it’s bad or merely adequate. It would probably be one of my favorite non-Ellroy novels if he hadn’t written it!

        I can defend or try to mitigate most of the perceived flaws in Perfidia. The one thing I genuinely had an issue with was the wholesale plagiarism of the communist cell storyline from The Big Nowhere and turning into Kay Lake’s major storyline in Perfidia. It was even the exact same “communist” cell! That struck me as real sloppiness. Anything else, like the criticism of the first-person diary narration for the Kay sections of the book, I can forgive as an experiment that didn’t quite gel.

        The Elizabeth Short storyline doesn’t bother me as much as I expected, considering how many people thought Ellroy had finally lost all sense of reality with that one. I’m interested to see where it goes-what struck me were some interviews that Ellroy gave when Perfidia was first released. He said that he wanted to try to depict Short as a living person, not just the usual routine in these types of stories where we first meet her as a corpse and then get second-hand accounts of her life. As any Ellroy fan knows, Elizabeth Short has been one of the biggest influences/obsessions of his life so this one is very personal.

        My only concern there is that it opened up a set of questions around the Black Dahlia case that didn’t even exist until Perfidia. I just hope Ellroy is around long enough to provide some answers in some novel down the road.

      • February 3, 2019 12:38 am

        I think Scene of the Crime is a fascinating book beyond Ellroy’s contribution. But as a specialist text it is very pricey. It’s a noble idea to portray Short as a living, normal person. Nothing unusual about Dud having an illegitimate daughter and Short would have been very similar to many other young men and women who moved to LA looking for a better life. But we know where this life is going and I suspect has some retconning planned. He’s done it before when he basically rewrote the morgue scene in Clandestine by excluding Dudley from The Black Dahlia

  2. February 2, 2019 6:12 pm

    It’s true – I hated Blood’s a Rover so much yet I still liked it better than anything else I read that year. Only a true addict can put up with such punishment and still come back for more. I’ll be back. The Storm beckons!

    • February 2, 2019 7:15 pm

      Thanks Rachel, we’re both Ellrovians and it’s a life sentence! I’m amazed by the response this piece has been getting here and on twitter. Lots of Ellroy addicts expressing their dislike of recent work and hoping for a change of direction. And yet he’s still the Demon Dog and even a misfire like Perfidia is miles better than any number of formulaic genre novels.

  3. Dave Clayden permalink
    February 5, 2019 12:00 pm

    Well, even fans are allowed to say there are parts of an artist’s work they like more or less or even not at all, especially as they become more familiar with the arc of a career.
    Often individual projects may be experiments in form, some ore successful than others and as James’ has generally honed everything into a machine gun fire of synaptic blips, that development has left everything above or below the curve or our own tastes.
    I have found the entirety of the series absolutely fascinating is throwing up a plausible alternative reality of America over, now, some 70 years or more.
    But I do sometimes wish that, like a musician, he could have gone off and worked on completely different things with different people and produced a body of work without bloodlines running right through it all.
    That way we wouldn’t be reading a history of America as a history of James Ellroy and his mental, marital and chemical hiccoughs.

    • February 5, 2019 1:24 pm

      I think Ellroy is a victim of his own success in that many of the texts of the Quartet and Underworld series have been so groundbreaking that it is a fruitless endeavour to try and top that, and yet fans feel an inevitable sense of disappointment if he produces a novel that any other wirter would be damn proud of.

      As far as engaging with other projects is concerned I totally agree with you. Ellroy has talked about a historical novel set in the Wisconsin State Police. German-Americans, Nazi-sympathies, Ellroy bloodlines. There’s a lot of promise there. I hope Ellroy doesn’t let the project slip away.

  4. George Sands permalink
    May 30, 2019 2:45 am

    I bought EVERY Ellroy — loved LA Quartet, loved DARK BLUE (film with Kurt Russel) but then…. the downward spiral: I hated Hollywood Nocturnes, hated Hillfigger Curse, Cold 6000, Blood;s a Rover and only got 59 pages into Perfida. I think he should call it a day rather than endlessly rehashing the same bits over & over he;s already done to death (& done WAY BETTER 20 years ago)

    • May 30, 2019 12:13 pm

      George, I saw Ellroy on tour this week and he was so full of energy and joie de vivre I hope he never stops writing. However, I’ve noticed a split between younger writers who think he can do no wrong and more longstanding fans who have struggled with his recent output.

      It’s nice to hear from someone who likes DARK BLUE. I always thought that film deserved more love.

      • George Sands permalink
        May 30, 2019 10:55 pm

        Steve,

        Thanks for your note. I guess Ellroy is (for me) a victim of his own (former) greatness. I LOVED every word, so fresh, so col, so edgy, so “jazzy”… and now he just seems like a long-winded parody of himself (to me, a long-standing fan)… Yeah, DARK BLUE, brilliant

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