THR Web Features   /   February 28, 2023

The Mixed Legacy of James Ellroy

A life of crime fiction.

Mark Dunbar

( Sixth Street Bridge, Los Angeles; Shutterstock.)

Reviewed here:

Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy
Steven Powell

London, England: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023.

James Ellroy writes popular crime novels. James Ellroy writes inaccessible crime novels. James Ellroy says if a reader can’t follow his plots, then tough luck for them—they’re too stupid, too impatient, too undisciplined. But, if an agent or publisher says to rewrite, he rewrites. If they say to cut, he cuts. It isn’t tough luck for them. That’s business. Ellroy is known for his mad-dog persona (“profane…nihilistic”). But that’s for those beneath him. For those above, he’s no mad dog—he’s a good boy.

That’s how Ellroy’s protagonists are too. They’re the goons and toadies for power. They don’t issue commands, and they don’t suffer the consequences of those commands. They’re the executioners. The order-followers. The rule-breakers.

Ellroy is the subject of Steven Powell’s Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy. Powell, a scholar of American crime fiction, does everything to portray Ellroy sympathetically and, for the most part, succeeds. If anyone has an excuse for Ellroy’s vices (or any vices), it’s Ellroy. His mother was murdered when he was eleven. His father—whom Powell doesn’t portray sympathetically—died when he was seventeen. After that, sexual frustration, drug addiction, and homelessness.

It seems likely that reading literally saved Ellroy’s life. In between odd jobs, robberies, and sleeping on park benches, Ellroy read crime novels. He read everyone. He read everyone again. He says he read every Ross Macdonald novel ten times. With Macdonald, he must’ve found his foil, because the two are opposites stylistically and morally. Macdonald’s novels are athletic. They skip along, never losing control. Ellroy’s are architectural. They span. No, they sprawl. At first, you think he’s over-indulging—all the lingo and slang, all the subplots and minor characters. But, as you continue reading, you realize he’s actually holding back. His plots aren’t running wild, they’re banging against their cages.

Ellroy’s big commercial break was The Black Dahlia. Before that he wrote the Lloyd Hopkins series. A flop, “disastrous,” according to his agent. The Black Dahlia was the first book in Ellroy’s first L.A. Quartet—the other three being The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. It’s during this time that Ellroy’s writing became Ellroyian—telegraphic, fast-paced, and intellectually cynical. It’s also during this time that Ellroy says he started to realize “politics is crime,” which proved to be a cute marketing position but a disastrous artistic one, because it’s so morally flat-footed. His stories couldn’t progress without conflict. They could only be jerked along by vulgar displays of violence, racism, corruption, and melodrama.

Powell found that Ellroy had been susceptible to this shock-and-awe schtick since he was a teenager. In high school, he got into Nazism to disturb his liberal classmates. But anytime he encountered other Nazis (or wannabe Nazis) he found them repulsive, pathetic. This kind of conservatism—rebellion against one’s liberal peers—is popular at the moment. And while it’s hardly unique to Los Angeles, it is particularly prevalent (and perhaps emanates from) there. It’s the desire to be at the cocktail parties in the Hollywood Hills—but be there with disdain.

Then there’s the remedy-running, the self-improvement as denialism, the search for mystical solutions to mundane problems, another quintessentially L.A. phenomenon. When Ellroy started suffering from stress and hypochondria, he tried everything—vitamin pharmacology, yogism, astrology, celebrity fat camp, neural feedback training, open marriage, etc. It’s been said Ellroy is L.A. personified. But, really, he’s a particular part of L.A. personified. The L.A. that is white, bourgeois, and anxious about both.

Ellroy’s commercial break was the first L.A. Quartet, but his literary legacy depends on his Underworld USA Trilogy—American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover. What in the first L.A. Quartet he did for California (politics is crime, the police are the smut-smugglers and drug-pushers), in the Underworld USA Trilogy he did for the intelligence community. In these books, Ellroy’s cynicism swallows the United States—and the world. Whatever one thinks of Ellroy, any crime novelist worth anything feels the same way about these books as Clive James did about Theodor Adorno—“Adorno, by and large, was a chump. But I would still like to have written Minima Moralia.” Halfway between the immaturity of the first L.A. Quartet and the senility of the Second, the Underworld USA books are something close to perfect as far as execution meeting intent.

Still, cynicism doesn’t age well. (In the young, at least, it’s a strange kind of innocence—a disappointment that the ideal must negotiate with the real.) Having failed to make sense of the world, Ellroy mocked those who could. Having failed to be tough with ideas, he was tough with words. Having failed to be tough with institutions, he was tough with individuals. His Second L.A. Quartet (and its offshoot, Widespread Panic) are almost self-parodies. Ellroy might not be tired of his shock-and-awe schtick, but his shock-and-awe schtick is now tiresome. In Widespread Panic, Ellroy accuses John Wayne of being (gasp) a cross-dresser.

If Ellroy’s novels are caged animals, their fate is probably for dissection rather than consumption. And deep down, like Ellroy himself, his animals prefer captivity. They don’t want to escape; they just want to rattle their cages. Still, to the extent that Ellroy failed as an individual artist (and he succeeded in so many ways), he is a pillar of artistic progress, a pair of giant shoulders for others to stand on. David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet is better than Ellroy’s, but also depends on it; season two of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective is a narrative imitation of Big Nowhere, except it vibrates with theme and atmosphere, while Ellroy’s novel merely hums.

Powell’s biography is wonderful, a must-read. He wrote Ellroy as a sympathetic character—something Ellroy says he never does. Write sympathetic characters, that is. But he does. He writes sympathetic characters for unsympathetic people. And yet one can’t help feeling something for them anyway—something like affection. In Powell’s biography, the same is true with Ellroy. It is a testament to him and to his subject.