Sunday, March 04, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mr. Ellroy

James (né Lee Earle) Ellroy was born on this day in Los Angeles, back in 1948. Coming off last fall’s overwrought Black Dahlia movie adaptation and attendant noise, it is a very good time to, for the moment, set aside Ellroy’s larger-than-life “Demon Dog” persona (a persona that can be hypnotic and that surely helped burnish the Ellroy legend, but can also prevent clear-eyed visions of his literary turnout) and instead look more closely at the written works themselves.

And what books he has given us. Sprawling, meaty, kaleidoscopic novels that take us on unforgettable, labyrinthine journeys into a simmering, epic Los Angeles (and Las Vegas and Miami and New York and Havana and Chicago ... but especially Los Angeles)--a city swelling at the seams with uncontrollable violence, deceit, self-deceit, predation, grief, self-hatred, dangerous bravado, and a deep, lingering sorrow over itself.

Always one to speak in broad strokes, Ellroy has claimed that he was sick and tired of novels about “bullshit loner private eyes,” and set out instead to “show bureaucracies as obscenely corrupt, structural systems in society as extremely corrupt, and policemen as both exploiters of it and victims of it, drawn by hellishly personal motives to solve crimes and restore personal order to their own lives because the corruption that engulfs them on all levels is huge.” And that sounds about right. He gives us American history as a pulp history of organized crime, tabloids, corruption, bureaucratic tyranny, disordered desires, and the eternality of vice. His books, in total, present for us a stylized and staggering master view of the dark heart of mid-20th-century America.

In the sweep of Ellroy's vision--the way he, as he puts it, seeks to give readers crime fiction on an epic, transcendent scale--it's easy to forget Ellroy's more subtle contributions. It's not just the grandiosity that matters. It’s everything else, too. It’s the women, Ellroy’s women, complicated and damaged, defined by loss but resilient beyond measure; and it’s the men, Ellroy’s men, complicated and damaged, and defined by those women, whose scars they carry helplessly, leading them down dangerous paths.

And, too, consider the brilliance he often achieves in his non-fiction prose, where the Grand Guignol element disappears and in its place you find a pastiche of tabloid newspaper subject matter and a police blotter cadence so good you forget how good it is. You’re just there. You’re in the patrol car. You’re at the crime scene. You’re not reading Ellroy anymore; you’re in Ellroy’s world. And strong, broken women are slipping through desperate men’s fingers, and the loss is so great the pages shudder.

Indeed, last but not least, we might thank James Ellroy today for that great, thumping heart of his, unabashed and doom-struck, which brings us lines like those from the end of “Stephanie” (featured in Destination: Morgue! L.A. Tales), a recounting of time Ellroy spent observing Los Angeles’ Cold Case Unit, as its members attempted to solve a long-ago mystery: the murder of 16-year-old Stephanie Gorman in her family’s West L.A. home back in 1965. In the final paragraphs of that story, realizing that the case will likely never be solved, Ellroy shifts from hard-boiled staccato and unfurls this, as if at the young woman’s feet:

Baby, who were you? How would you grow and who would you love? Did you know you’d touch driven men and teach them?

You’ve got torchbearers. Three detectives and one chronicler. We want to know you. It’s a pursuit. It’s a likelier outcome than justice.

We’re spinning our wheels. It doesn’t matter. We get glimpses. You’re twirling in your prom gown. Color us devoted. Color you gone.

For paragraphs like these, for the ache in every line, for giving us characters as rich and unforgettable as Bud White (L.A. Confidential) and Dave Klein (White Jazz) and Danny Upshaw (The Big Nowhere), for defying and exploding genre limitations, for the uncanny way he can make his obsessions our obsessions, for the way he’s marked crime fiction for us and for the depth and beauty of that mark, for all this and more ... Happy 59th birthday, Mr. Ellroy.


Anonymous said...

After seeing the jumbled mess that Hollywood made of The Black Dahlia
I think I'll pass on seeing books to movies for a while and stick with the novels.

David Thayer said...

Well said, Megan, a fitting birthday salute.

Anonymous said...

A very well written post. This is a proper salute to the great man. Happy Birthday Mr. Ellroy.
Drop into my blog on birthday ecards for some beautiful e-greeting cards and other interesting info.

Anonymous said...

Megan -- if you come to the LA Times Festival of Books to sign at our booth, we might be able to seat you with Mr. Ellroy...

(A blatant attempt at bribery, I know, but still haven't heard if you're coming or not -- and Bobby and I really hope you can join us -- and the tens of thousands of readers who stroll past and into our booth...)

Linda Brown
The Mystery Bookstore

Anonymous said...

happy birthday, loved the black dahlia