James Ellroy Essay - Critical Essays

Lee Earle Ellroy


James Ellroy’s earliest works represent his attempt to come to grips with crimes of the sort that touched his life—especially the murder of his mother and his own antisocial behavior after the death of his father—and his efforts to find his voice as a writer. The Chandler homage, Brown’s Requiem, and the thinly disguised initial exploration of his mother’s murder in Clandestine are manifestations of a talented writer’s growing pains while settling on topics worthy of exploration and developing the proper perspective and tone in the telling. He rapidly learned his craft in making the transition from novice to author of stature.

With the publication of Blood on the Moon, the first entry in his Lloyd Hopkins trilogy, Ellroy discovered the value of series characters. In The Black Dahlia, the first novel in his L.A. quartet, he found his niche as a fictional chronicler of the recent past. In American Tabloid (1995), the opening salvo in his American Underworld/Underground USA series, he broadened his horizons from local to international events.

An outspoken fan of the Los Angeles Police Department, Ellroy does not always portray the force in a favorable light. Especially in the Hopkins and L.A. quartet novels, he details the legwork, procedures, and collaborative efforts necessary to solve crimes and unravel the overarching mystery. Solutions to baffling puzzles follow a crooked rather than a straight line, and truths are hidden under layers of subterfuge.

From the beginning, Ellroy has exhibited skill in drawing fully rounded characters that blur the lines between hero and villain. In later novels, his fictional creations interact with historical personalities. Virtually all of Ellroy’s crime solvers are professionals: current or former police officers or deputies, former agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or Central Intelligence Agency, often depicted as brilliant in their ability to make leaps of deduction. Antagonists—mafia bosses, corrupt politicians, thugs, criminal masterminds, and rogue police officers—are devious, vicious, and determined. The combatants are capable of anything in the pursuit of their goals.

Ellroy frequently incorporates newspaper clippings or other documents to aid narrative flow or to provide information that could not be included by other means. He has generally eschewed extensive use of literary pyrotechnics, such as simile or metaphor. Though there are occasional mildly amusing set pieces and instances of broad parody, Ellroy cannot truly be called a humorous writer. His style has become more clipped and staccato over time; his language is pared to its essence, and sentences are often reduced to fragments. His slangy, pungent, and profane dialogue relentlessly propels his narrative forward...

(The entire section is 1162 words.)