The Rebirth of Cool: James Ellroy’s THE COLD SIX THOUSANDAdrian McKinty is the author of the ‘Dead’ trilogy. He is currently working on a novel for Holt.
In 2007 I taught a course in American crime fiction at Naropa University in Boulder. I looked at the evolution of the American crime novel, from Poe through Hammett and Chandler, and I ended with James Ellroy’s LA CONFIDENTIAL, which appeared in 1990. I had put Ellroy in the curriculum because most of the students had seen movie versions of his fiction; however, I admitted to the class that I was not a huge fan of Ellroy’s writing. I had read his earliest crime novels and three of the titles in his celebrated LA Quartet without being completely convinced. His best books seemed to be LA CONFIDENTIAL, THE BIG NOWHERE and WHITE JAZZ, but for me these novels were, at best, flawed masterpieces. Ellroy’s plots tended to get away from him and his subtext about the greed and corruption of policemen, DA’s, politicians, Hollywood – everyone really – in 1950’s Southern California did not resonate with me on a deep level. None of his characters were particularly captivating and it seemed that Ellroy himself often got bored with his corrupt cops and ex-cops, frequently killing them, and moving the story on with a different lead.
In these early novels Ellroy’s (right) descriptions are beautiful but chilly and his dialogue, although authentic and rich, lacks a sense of humour.
I shared some of these observations with my class but one of my students disagreed with me in the strongest possible terms and asked me if I had read AMERICAN TABLOID or THE COLD SIX THOUSAND. I admitted that I hadn’t and she suggested that I should.
The following month at Denver Airport I picked up a copy of THE COLD SIX THOUSAND and began reading it in a long security line. I finished it the same night at four in the morning in a hotel in Vancouver. A week later I read the book again. THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, I decided, was no ‘flawed masterpiece’ but rather one of the best books I had read so far this decade.
James Ellroy’s biography is the stuff from which serial killers or junkies or mental patients or, rarely, great writers are made. His mother was murdered in 1958 when he was only 10 years old – the killer was never found. Ellroy’s father was a right-wing nut who drank heavily, had affairs, and whacked his son around to toughen him up. Ellroy took on the persona of a teenage neo-Nazi to torment his Jewish neighbours and he became a compulsive petty thief and burglar. As he got better at breaking into people’s houses his compulsions grew weirder. He would often spy on pretty Jewish girls, wait until their homes were empty, break in and sniff their underwear. Frequently arrested, LAPD cops became surrogate older brothers who eventually put him on the straight and narrow. Ellroy describes these early years in the brilliant memoir MY DARK PLACES. The LAPD and the discovery of crime fiction, he says, were the two things that saved his life.
His early novels did well, but it was the success of the movie version of LA CONFIDENTIAL that seems to have given Ellroy the confidence and financial freedom to write fiction the way he always wanted to.
Ostensibly THE COLD SIX THOUSAND is the story of a Las Vegas cop who arrives in Dallas on the day of the Kennedy assassination, but really it is the story of the 1960’s themselves and all the madness of Vietnam, Cuba, race riots, demonstrations and the hippy movement. But not content with writing a book about a whole decade, Ellroy decided to reinvent his prose style completely. Gone are most of the verbs and adverbs, the prose descriptions, the purple patches. What’s left is the distilled essence of the narrative, the bare bones, as rich as bad news from the AP wire, as lyrical as a haiku. This is how he describes ex-FBI agent Ward Little’s attempt to take Las Vegas for his boss Howard Hughes (Drac):“Little planned. Little sowed. The Boys reaped. Bribes/PR/extortion. Blackmail / philanthropy. It took four years. Drac owns Las Vegas now.”Other writers might have spent a chapter on that episode.
Critics complained that Hemingway wrote as if he was dictating the book for a telegraph operator; Ellroy could be the called the crime novelist for the email and text message generation. He seems to have taken seriously the famous claim of Joseph Conrad that “a work of art should justify itself in every line.” In THE COLD SIX THOUSAND not a single word is wasted, every sentence moves the plot, every paragraph tells a story. And what a story. The assassination of JFK, the hit on Martin Luther King, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and a supporting cast that includes Nixon, Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover.
After reading THE COLD SIX THOUSAND I devoured the prequel to that book, AMERICAN TABOLID, and ideally it should be read first, although it isn’t quite as brilliant. There is also a rumoured third novel to come, which will conclude Ellroy’s look at this period, roughly 1958 – 1973. If it’s only half as good as the others in the trilogy it still might be the best crime novel of 2008.
Many people won’t be able to get past Ellroy’s machine-gun prose style or his racist characters or the completely insane conspiracy theory at the heart of THE COLD SIX THOUSAND but stick with the book and you’ll be rewarded. Ellroy’s phrases and dialogue rattle around in your brain. You start to think like Ellroy. You start to talk like him. Returning from Vancouver, my wife asked me if I’d managed to get that James Ellroy novel I was after. I told her: “I scoped the book, I bought the book, I read the book, I dug it.”
In interviews Ellroy sometimes describes himself as “the Tolstoy of crime fiction.” His boast is inaccurate. He’s not that ponderous. He is, though, one of the greats. I believe that THE COLD SIX THOUSAND elevates Ellroy into the pantheon. It is perhaps the most important American crime novel since Patricia Highsmith’s THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY and it certainly proves that Ellroy is a worthy successor to Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Jim Thompson.
I would guess that future lecturers won’t be as ignorant of Ellroy as I was and that any good course in American crime fiction will not only explain the revolution that began with THE MALTESE FALCON but also talk about the new revolution that started after James Ellroy began firing on all cylinders. – Adrian McKinty
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Monday, February 4, 2008
Mi Casa, Su Casa: Adrian McKinty On James Ellroy
The Grand Vizier writes: The motives behind ‘Mi Casa, Su Casa’ are twofold. First, the idea is to give guest bloggers the few molecules of oxygen of publicity Crime Always Pays can provide. Secondly, even we’re sick of listening only to ourselves, and we reckon some new voices will provide fresh perspectives on crime fiction in general, and Irish crime fiction in particular. And so, with minimum fanfare – a tiny tootle there, please, maestro – we introduce the first of what we’re hoping will be an ongoing and extensive series of guest blogs, in which Adrian McKinty (right) waxes lyrical about ‘the Tolstoy of crime fiction’.