Destination: Morgue!

by Lee Earle Ellroy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2122

Although marketed as an original work, James Ellroy's Destination: Morgue! consists of fourteen short works, eleven of which were published in the magazine Gentlemen's Quarterly, where Ellroy was formerly a writer-at-large. The three previously unpublished pieces in Destination: Morgue! are novellas about a homicide detective, “Rhino” Rick Jensen and his lover, a famous television star. In short, they amount to a hard-hitting journey through the underside of Los Angeles and are best taken in small doses.

Justly celebrated for the style and subject matter of his Los Angeles quartet of novels—The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992)—Ellroy is among the most notorious of American writers working today.

Most readers are attracted or repelled by Ellroy's subject matter and literary style. In terms of style, Ellroy is noteworthy for his distinctive voice: a combination of concise sentences and self-consciously alliterative, repetitive, often vulgar wordplay. Structurally, Ellroy's paragraphs are short, consisting mainly of long chains of declarative subject-verb-object sentences with minimal internal transitions. For instance, in a short essay about the actor Robert Blake and the 2002 murder of Blake's wife, Ellroy writes, “[The facts] reign rancorous and raggedy-ass. They won’t mount a media Matterhorn. They define despair and ladle on lowlife ennui.” These quotations epitomize the Ellroy style, at least as it appears in Destination: Morgue! At its best, Ellroy's style is both powerful and efficient; the short sentences and paragraphs enable readers to speed quickly through the story or essay, absorbing the key points quickly. However, at its worst, this style resembles a laundry list transmitted via telegraph.

The subject matter of the short pieces will be familiar to most readers of Ellroy's other works. In a 2004 interview published in The Seattle Times, Ellroy described this book as an introduction to his obsessions, which include “murdered women, dogs, boxing, scandal-rag journalism, the death penalty, unsolved murders of women.” To this list could be included drug addiction, homophobia, violence for violence's sake, and self-obsessed biography. Other featured topics include honest, hardworking police officers confronting official corruption, rampant criminality, and an uncaring public.

The first essay in the book, “Balls to the Wall,” highlights a welterweight title fight between two Mexican boxers in Las Vegas. Interspersed with terse and alliterative descriptions of the action in the ring, Ellroy describes his early life in Los Angeles. His love of boxing was engendered in him by his father, Lee Ellroy, an oversexed man of many trades. Lee also taught his son a racist view of society in which Anglos dominated, Latinos aspired to Anglo status, and blacks were at the figurative bottom. To Lee, boxing measured a man's courage and machismo. This essay also introduces James Ellroy's interest in biographical self-flagellation. It almost goes without saying that James's first fight with a school friend ended ignominiously.

Lee's influence on his son is the subject of several other essays, including “Where I Get My Weird Shit” and “My Life as a Creep.” These essays go into greater detail about James Ellroy's life from the 1950's to the 1970's. Some of the highlights include the divorce of his parents when he was seven and his mother's murder when he was ten. As Ellroy describes, he found his mother in bed with strange men twice. As he suggests, she was attracted to dangerous men. Much later, the adult Ellroy suspected that her murder was a date rape gone extremely wrong. Although his essays do not describe his feelings at the time, it is hard not to wonder whether his fascination with unsolved murders—especially of women—stemmed from this ten-year-old boy's efforts to comprehend the brutality and incomprehensibility of the crime.

From this harsh beginning, Ellroy's life got even worse. Throughout the 1960's, he was aware of his difference from his peers and made no effort to fit in with them. As he relates it, in high school, he was one of the few Protestants in a school mainly attended by middle-class Jewish students. He was poor, gangly, had bad skin, and apparently tried to shock and repel others through anti-Semitic stunts. Certainly aware that he was an outsider, Ellroy describes his increasingly vituperative anti-Semitism and racism, including his claims that slavery should be reinstated and his avowed admiration for the Nazis. At home, Ellroy's father wore a yarmulke to annoy his fascist son.

Ellroy found his father increasingly ill. Thrown out of school for making an anti-Semitic speech in English class, Ellroy bummed around Los Angeles before joining the Army. Realizing that he had made a terrible mistake, Ellroy spent two months trying to convince military doctors that he was having a nervous breakdown. He was subsequently dishonorably discharged, shortly before his father's death in 1965. Through the rest of the 1960's, Ellroy lived in a variety of houses, hovels, and abandoned shacks. He became a housebreaker, a drug addict, and eventually wound up in the hospital in a drug-induced coma. These events are related in unflinching detail, and Ellroy seems to delight in excoriating himself for his wrong choices.

Throughout the 1950's and early 1960's life was difficult, Lee Ellroy provided no adult guidance and it was hard for the younger Ellroy to do anything other than “Read, watch crime flicks, bop around L.A. Fantasize and pick your nose and tell yourself stories…. Be lazy. Be slothful. Disdain adult wisdom. Be inflamed with your fatuous new self-knowledge.” Eventually, he found hard work as a writer much to his liking because it gave him the opportunity to objectify and understand his life and to make a difference in the lives of others.

This latter goal seems to be the point behind two other short essays in Destination: Morgue!, “Grave Doubt” and “Stephanie.” Those who see Ellroy as simply a police writer would do well to consider the conclusions he reaches in “Grave Doubt.” In that essay, Ellroy examines a decades-old murder that took place in Houston. A middle-aged white man was murdered for approximately fifty dollars outside a small grocery store late at night, in front of multiple witnesses. The black man who was eventually fingered for the crime, Gary Graham, did not match any of the witnesses’ descriptions. However, after Graham was arrested, the police used various techniques to cause witnesses to question their memories; for instance, putting the bearded and hirsute Graham in a line-up with several other men, all of whom had short hair and were clean-shaven. Eventually, Graham was convicted of the crime and was sentenced to death. In a review of the case, Ellroy was forced to conclude that Graham—a violent and callous criminal—was probably innocent of these charges and hence did not deserve to be on death row.

If “Grave Doubt” relates the events that caused a career criminal to be convicted of a crime he probably did not commit, “Stephanie” narrates the horrifying story of an innocent young girl who was killed in 1966 and whose murder remains unsolved to this day. As a middle-aged writer looking over Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) cold case files, Ellroy came across the case of Stephanie Gorman. The Gorman family was stable and loving: a mother, a father, and their two daughters. Both Stephanie and her older sister were successful in high school and looked forward to successful futures. Thorough background checks after the murder revealed that both were quintessentially good kids. Their neighborhood seemed safe and secure. If risk factors were tallied, neither Gorman girl would be considered at risk of violence. However, someone broke into the Gorman house and raped and murdered Stephanie.

At first glance, the crime should have been easier to solve. There was plenty of forensic evidence inside the home. Moreover, the crime took place during the day, while someone was watering the lawn next door. However, as Ellroy relates, events conspired to frustrate the police and make catching the murderer almost impossible.

First, the police developed a few solid leads in the case, but those dried up. Suspects that seemed promising quickly turned out to have solid alibis. As stated above, background checks on the Gorman girls were fruitless; there were no disgruntled boyfriends, dangerous acquaintances, or enemies in their lives. As the leads evaporated, the police began rounding up whole categories of criminals, such as all known date rapists, all known breaking-and-entering men, all known flashers, all known child molesters, and so on. Because they lacked specifics, the police were casting a very wide net and hoping for the best; they did not get it.

Scant days after the Stephanie Gorman murder, the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts was torn apart by some of the worst rioting of the twentieth century. Virtually the entire LAPD was called out to maintain order during the rioting and for some time afterward. This meant limited manpower to track down all Gorman murder leads or to round up and interview all the suspects. Time destroys criminal investigations, and as the days passed, the chance of catching Stephanie's murderer grew more and more slim. Gradually, as the years lengthened, various leads occasionally developed and then petered out.

Finally, in the 1990's, Ellroy followed a team of Los Angeles detectives who had reopened the case and located an extremely promising suspect. This fellow, thirty-four years old in 1966 and a petty criminal, had apparently left a fingerprint inside the Gorman house. After painstakingly building the case and plotting strategy, Ellroy relates the detectives’ intense disappointment upon learning that the last promising suspect had a solid alibi for the time of the murders and a valid explanation for his fingerprint inside the victim's home. The older sister, who first found Stephanie's body, ran next door—where the suspect had been visiting—for help. The suspect and his hosts accompanied the sister back into the Gorman house in a desperate attempt to try to save Stephanie's life. Once again, time and events conspired to frustrate what should have been a much less difficult case.

The short essay “Stephanie” is clearly compelling, both to readers and to Ellroy. The murdered girl and the inability to bring the murderer to justice echo the murder of Ellroy's own mother; moreover, Ellroy's and Stephanie's lives may have intersected. They were contemporaries, lived scant miles apart, and may have met. Ellroy's personal investment in seeing Stephanie's murder solved breeds interest within the reader.

Such essays are among the highlights of Destination: Morgue! The rest of the essays in the first part and the two hundred pages of fiction in the second part of the work are less engaging. The last three pieces in Destination: Morgue! are darkly comic novellas about a homicide detective Rick Jensen and his longtime love affair with the television actress Donna Donahue. Jensen shares many of the same obsessions as his creator, Ellroy. For instance, both are fascinated with the tragically unsolved murder of Stephanie Gorman. Both are fascinated with Los Angeles lowlifes, including three murderers from the 1950's and 1960's—Stephen Nash, Donald Keith Bashor, and Harvey Glatman. Both Jensen and Ellroy are fascinated and repelled by Hollywood. In these respects, the novellas seem like little more than Ellroy's effort to exchange the constraints of nonfiction for the possibilities of fiction.

In perhaps the best of the three novellas, “Jungletown Jihad,” Jensen and Donahue investigate the murder of three Saudi Arabs who had been living the high life in Los Angeles, drinking, smoking marijuana, and spending time at strip clubs. As Jensen learns later, these men had been part of a terrorist team sent to the United States to make mayhem. As they became seduced by the opulence of American culture, they became less committed to their mission and eventually were murdered by their leaders. What makes this story of slightly more interest than the others is the resemblance between these terrorists and the terrorists who struck on September 11, 2001. Mohammed Atta and his henchmen blended into American society by drinking, going to nightclubs, and so forth. In the novel, unlike real life, the terrorist plot is foiled, and the terrorists themselves are either rounded up or killed.

In summary, the essays in this compilation are worthwhile. “Stephanie” is horrifying but compelling. “My Life as a Creep,” “Balls to the Wall,” and “Where I Get My Weird Shit” offer a quick, punchy biography of the writer. “Grave Doubt” demonstrates Ellroy's ability to provokes a reader's compassion for a truly repulsive criminal. Moreover, it demonstrates his ability to reach beyond Los Angeles for a compelling story. The rest of the book does not measure up.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 22 (August 1, 2004): 1868.

Entertainment Weekly, October 1, 2004, p. 77.

Library Journal 129, no. 18 (November 1, 2004): 83.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 33 (August 16, 2004): 41.

The Seattle Times, October 25, 2004, p. J12.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 26, 2004, p. 23.

The Village Voice, September 20, 2004, p. B16.

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