Thursday, September 18, 2014

James Ellroy, historical novelist

(Me and James Ellroy. Photo by a friendly bystander, photo
cropping and color desaturation by your humble blog keeper.)
James Ellroy says he "started out as a mystery writer, a crime writer. I became something else."

I've known that for a while, other readers of his recent novels have to have known it as well, and Ellroy has long said he doesn't write crime anymore. But what is that something else that he became?

A historical novelist, he said Wednesday at Mysterious Bookshop and, with his new Perfidia, a writer of historical romance. "In the course of going from mystery writer, from crime novelist, to historical novelist," he said, "I crafted the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz)."

Perfidia is the first novel of a second L.A. Quartet. More than in the first quartet and more even than in the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood's a Rover), the book's action is rooted in the moment of history that provides its setting.

That moment is December 1941 (The book's action begins on Dec. 6), and the centerpiece is the roundup of Japanese and Japanese Americans in and around Los Angeles, what Ellroy calls "the great injustice of the Japanese internment."

Virtually everything else in the book--the killings, the sex, the breakdown of social boundaries, the shady land deals--flows from the fact of the internment, planning for which is underway through most of the course of the novel.

The book is populated largely by characters from Ellroy's previous books, portrayed this time as their considerably younger selves. The four protagonists are Hideo Ashida, a police chemist; William Parker, a police captain in 1941 and later the real-life Los Angeles police chief; the demonic police sergeant Dudley Smith, a fixture in previous books; and Kay Lake, a young woman from Sioux Falls, S.D., whom Ellroy called his greatest fictional creation.  The revisiting of characters from previous books will be great fun for readers of those books.  It also provides at least one shocking surprise.

The novel may lack the stylistic daring of The Cold Six Thousand and naughty shtick and grotesque comic high-jinks of Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, John F. Kennedy, and the Las Vegas mob bosses from previous books.  What is does offer is increased emphasis on tortured redemption, of the kind Wayne Tedrow Jr., Ward Littell, and Robert F. Kennedy exemplified in the Underworld U.S.A. books.

That, and more thinking about 20th-century American history. "The whole book is a riff on democracy," Ellroy said Wednesday evening. "1941 in America was a time of utterly outlandish belief," he said, and he called it a sign of American goodness and greatness that the United States did not fall to its own currents of lunatic populism, nativism, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, the way other countries did.
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Ellroy also offered thoughts on movie adaptations of his work. Three of the leads in L.A. Confidential (Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes, Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken, and Russell Crowe as Bud White),  he said, were not believable as their characters.  He didn't say they were bad, just not believable. But--and this is why I would love to grill Ellroy further on movies--the movie is "not an outright dog, as I believe the overpraised Chinatown to be."

© Peter Rozovsky 2014 

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16 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

I think he's either playing to his reputation, or is too much influenced by his images of those characters. I watched LA CONFIDENTIAL again a couple of weeks ago, and was gobsmacked yet again. It's as close to a perfect (crime) story as I have seen.

THE BIG NOWHERE is due in from Amazon next week. I'm looking forward to working my way through the LA Quartet for the first time.

September 18, 2014  
Blogger david hartzog said...

I agree, LA Confidential was terrific. The only thing missing were fedoras. Chinatown was excellent as well. Both had literate scripts, atmosphere, and fine performances.

September 18, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He could well be influenced by his images of those characters, and he's entitled to be; he created them. I was careful note that he did not say the actors performed poorly. His opinions could also change over time. I heard him read five years ago, and I think he spoke more highly of the movie then. He has also written appreciatively of Curtis Hanson, the movie's director.

The L.A. Quarter for the first time? I had the idea that you'd read tons of Ellroy--my image of you, I guess.

I have not read the first two volumes of the L.A. Quartet to Ellroy's early novels. I have read White Jazz, L.A. Confidential (in one sitting), American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood's A Rover, Perfidia, and a bunch of his short pieces.

September 18, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

David, Ellroy spoke at some length about the movie's lack of fedoras when I heard him read in 2009. He acknowledged that all the men in the movie would in fact have worn hats at the time, but he applauded the moviemakers' decision to drop them. Hats would have drawn too much of the viewers' attention, and I think he was right. I remember trailers and ads for Gangster Squad. All I remember about them were the hats.

September 18, 2014  
Blogger david hartzog said...

I've read all of James Ellroy's books beginning with the wonderful Clandestine (which introduced Dudley Smith) in the early 80s, and greatly enjoyed most of them, particularly the 2 series. But I was very disappointed with the lackluster Perfidia. Nevertheless, I look forward to the sequels. One thing though, I disliked his trashing of Ellen Drew, who was terrific in Johnny O'Clock. Thank goodness he didn't go after noir goddess Ella Raines.

September 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Does Ella Raines get a passing mention in Perfidia, perhaps as an object of young Jack Kennedy's fancy? Or is that in one of Ellroy's short pieces, some of which I have also read recently?

Do you really think Ellen Drew comes off that badly? I thought she was just one more character misbehaving in a moment when no one shows restraint. It's Bette Davis whose behavior makes her look bad, I'd say.

I am such a fan of the large historical canvas of Ellroy's six most recent novels that I might find the earlier one hard to get used to. Interesting that Ellroy, who I don't think has had much good to say about rock and roll, chose "Because the Night" and "Killer on the Road" as titles for two of his earlier books.

You say you look forward to Perfidia's sequels. "When does the next one appear?" I asked him. "Two Years," he said.

September 19, 2014  
Blogger david hartzog said...

Ella Raines gets name-checked by JFK, that's all. Jeez, Ellen Drew is portrayed as a drugged up part-time hooker. As for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, I 'm not a fan of either so Ellroy can have them, but hands off Liz Scott. Clandestine is set in that late 40s, early 50s time period, and really worth a look. Well, I will just have to hang around at least two more years for the next one.

September 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ellroy's hands are off Liz Scott in this book, but decidedly not in his Danny Getchell stories. Somehow the phrase lip-locked with luscious lezzie Liz Scott comes to mind.

And lots of folks are drugged-up hookers or word win Perfidia .Thanks for the top on Clandestine.

September 19, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Hmmm. You do know Lizabeth Scott is still alive, don't you, Peter? I wonder because the only other time it was suggested she is a lesbian, and this was in one of the most notorious scandal sheets of the day, she sued, though her attorney made the error of filing the suit in the wrong state. I really don't think she was/is. Her list of male conquests, some of whom talked (Burt Lancaster most notably), fiances and husbands tends to weigh in the balance rather more heavily than that one magazine article, especially as some of 'the facts' it presented in support of a pretty bizarre and convoluted tale were literally impossible. She was still acting in the 1960s in notable TV guest roles and looked, I rather think, even lovelier then in her 40s than she did in her movie days.

September 19, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Well, I'm persuaded. I must read Ellroy, and so I will remedy a deficiency in my crime-mystery-historical novel reading. But wait! Is there such a thing as a crime-mystery-historical novel? You and Ellroy say, "Yes!" But I counter with the question: Is any novel that is not speculative/science fiction (i.e., set in the future) an historical novel? Name one that is not instantly historical. I dare you.

September 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, interesting that she's still alive, because Ellroy generally sticks to dead people for his fictional scandals. Maybe he thought it was safe to invoke Scott because the scandal made her something of a public figure. And he's not especially hard on her, either. If I recall her occasional appearances in his short fiction correctly. he treats her sympathetically and gives her come good lines. For all his politically incorrect language, Ellroy is fairly sympathetic toward gay and lesbian characters. The same is true of his characters from any number of minority groups, but commentators on Ellroy tend not to notice this because they get too caught up in the shocking epithets, which Ellroy insists is part of his love of argot and slang of all kinds. I am inclined to believe him.

September 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I'm not sure Ellroy would say yes. He called himself a crime novelist then and a historical novelist now, but never a crime-historical novelist.

As it happens the core of Perfidia is a murder mystery, but it's a tiny core around which Ellroy builds the novel's big story.

As for categories, I suppose the quick and dirty answer is that any novel set in the past, in a time not the author's own is historical. Probing further, I would say that a historical novel must take the time of its setting as something more than a mere date on a calendar.

Recent novels by Adrian McKinty and John McFetridge are interesting in-between cases. Each reins heavily on the milieu of a notable, tumultuous period in his country's history, each author choosing as his protagonist an adult (police officers in both cases) living and working in a period when the authors were children. Historical? I don't think the authors think of the novels that way (and don't think it matters. All five novels in question are worth reading, and not just because "Peter Rozovsky" is a character in two of them.)

September 19, 2014  
Blogger david hartzog said...

Good to see favorites McKinty and McFetridge get some props for their blazing crime fiction set in Northern Ireland and Toronto. I think Everyone Knows This is Nowhere is particularly good.

September 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My favorite McFetridges are probably Tumblin' Dice and his next book. If you've looked at some recent posts here, you may know that I'll moderate a panel on Northern Ireland crime fiction at the Bouchercon crime fiction convention in November. McKinty will be on the panel, and the agenda will include Belfast Noir, part of Akashic Books' "City Noir" series

September 19, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'm reviewing Perfidia for the paper so I cant elaborate on that here (3/4 of the POV characters were great) but as I've said about TC6000 it works best as Alternative History.

September 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, let the world know when your review appears. I had not thought of calling Ellroy's recent work alternative history, but the description makes a lot sense. So, what are the criteria for writing good alternative history? Seems to me the alternative history has to be plausible, given the real history. Seems to me that in broad outline, at least, Perfidia is.

When your review appears, I'll let you know if my guess about which of the four POV characters you think fell short is right.

In re alternative history, I told Ellroy that the only thing wrong with Perfidia was that Howard Hughes was not in it. (This, of course, was my way of saying that the book lacked the comic schtick of The Cold Six Thousand. "I got tired of Howard Hughes," he said.

September 20, 2014  

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