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A James Ellroy Playlist: Sweet Dreams

September 18, 2021

James Ellroy’s White Jazz is written as ‘a fever dream’ of Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein. The stark power of Ellroy’s prose style carries the reader through the nightmarish, barely lucid mind of Klein. The musical references in the novel reflect this confusion. Whether it be in the dizzying influence of black bebop jazz or in the folkloric tales that Ellroy adapts to a 1950s Los Angeles setting, White Jazz is awash with musical power.

Take a stroll through its Dreamworld:

Will o’ the Wisp

One of the most intriguing sub-plots of White Jazz concerns a serial killer who is preying on the homeless. Hush-Hush reports that ‘three wino bums were found strangled and mutilated in abandoned houses in the Hollywood area. Very Hush-Hush: we’ve heard the still-at-large killer snapped their windpipes postmortem, utilising great strength.’ Hush-Hush might be a disreputable rag, but it uses its tabloid clout to put pressure on the LAPD to solve the killings. While it shines a spotlight on murders which would otherwise go unreported due to the low profile of the victims, Hush-Hush salaciously gives the killer a sense of dubious celebrity as the magazine:

hereby names this fiend the ‘Wino Will-o-the-Wisp’ and petitions the LAPD to find him and set him up with a hot date in San Quentin’s green room. They cook with gas there, and this killer deserves a four-burner cookout.

Will-o’-the-wisp is an atmospheric light, similar to St Elmo’s Fire. It is a natural phenomenon which, in centuries past, inspired many ghost stories and folklore. In metaphorical terms, Will-o’-the-wisp can refer to a ray of hope that can lure someone but proves elusive or, when found, is finally revealed as sinister and destructive. It’s clear why Ellroy would find it a good name for a murderer who preys on winos who, in their malnourished state, would be easy to lure to a secluded spot where they would meet a grisly end.

White Jazz is set in 1958-9 and is crammed with jazz references of the era. Miles Davis began recording his Sketches of Spain album in November 1959 and it was released the following year. One of the tracks is ‘Will o’ the Wisp’, a reworking of the famous Manuel de Falla composition. Merging Spanish folklore with the lonely trumpet of the noir world, Davis’s version has a wonderfully seductive beginning that peters out with a tinge of melancholy as it goes on.

Just remember where that seductive ghost light leads you in Will-o’-the-wisp folklore…


White Jazz is divided into five sections which are named after classic jazz tracks. The concluding section is named ‘Hushabye’. ‘Hushabye’ is a jazz standard performed by a number of noted musicians, but it’s also the name of a hit song by The Mystics released in 1959. This song is, I feel, the piece Ellroy is most likely referring to in the novel’s denouement. As with many of the golden oldies tunes Ellroy references in his historical fiction, the song feels cloyingly sentimental by contemporary tastes. But that may well be the point. The ‘Hushabye’ section of the novel moves at a breakneck pace, consisting of six chapters and an epilogue spread over thirteen pages. Some of the chapters are less than half a page long, and the section contains two murders, a vicious beating and a summation of the fates of all the prominent characters.

You could probably finish reading Ellroy’s ‘Hushabye’ in about the same time it takes to listen to the song, and its sickly sweet nature provide sharp contrast to the violence in the text. Ellroy is aware of how the songs of the era used sentimentality as a mask for darker themes. The lyrics refer to the ‘Sandman will be coming soon / Singing you a slumber tune’. The Sandman has his genesis in Scandinavian folklore. He sprinkles sand into the eyes of children to bring on sleep and dreams, and has been portrayed as both a benevolent and a sinister figure. As with his use of Will-o’-the-wisp, Ellroy understands the frightening power of this folklore and much of the novel is obsessed with eyes and voyeurism. The two murders which occur in the ‘Hushabye’ section feature the victims being shot ‘faceless blind’. Klein undergoes plastic surgery which leaves him ‘one eye squinty, one eye normal’.

By the end of the novel, Klein’s delirious nightmare is concluding. Yet rather than transition into a peaceful state, he is revving up for more confrontation: ‘I’m going back. I’m going to make Exley confess every monstrous deal he ever cut with the same candour I have. I’m going to kill Carlisle, and make Dudley fill in every moment of his life – to eclipse my guilt with the sheer weight of his evil

Sleep tight:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    September 20, 2021 10:12 pm

    Great piece- I’m the opposite of Ellroy in musical tastes (more pop/rock) so the jazz and classical references generally go right by me unless there are articles like this one to explain.

    I believe this is a question I’ve seen among fans several times but not sure if I’ve seen a clear-cut answer- was there ever a resolution on the will-of-the-wisp murderer? With many authors it wouldn’t be a surprise if some sub-plots never had a resolution but Ellroy usually manages to tie everything together even if there are 20 sub-plots to juggle.

    • September 21, 2021 2:28 pm

      Thanks Dan. I’m not really ‘in’ to this music either, although I do like listening to classical, especially when writing. Over the past year, writing this series has made me more appreciative of diverse types of music, but I’m still a long way from being a fan. As for Wino-Will-O-the-Wisp, this is one of those ‘who killed the chaffeur?’ moments from The Big Sleep. Having revisited the novel, and read Jim Mancall’s excellent summation, the only closure I can find is that Klein and Glenda mutilate Miciak’s corpse after they murder him and dump it in Wino territory to throw the scent off them. So it seems Ellroy found it more convenient to refer to this mythological serial killer rather than resolve the mystery.

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