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Hollywood Nocturnes by James Ellroy: A Book Review
As I have reviewed a couple of books by James Ellroy already, I think it might be useful to let you have a look at those, if you like, before you read this one. By taking a look at the two past reviews I've done of this writer's work, you might get a fair idea about what I think about Ellroy's work, how I have tended to interpret it, and some idea about the structure and/or basic formula for a James Ellroy novel---at least as I understand it, how I tend to interpret his work.
There is something you should know before you read this book, or any James Ellroy novel, if you have never done so before. Mr. Ellroy is a writer who describes his own work as briskly selling but "too dark, densely plotted and relentless violent to be chart toppers" (p.10--introduction).
He explained that this was the internal assessment of the publishing industry. Ellroy seemed to have agreed with that assessment; and he said that he would not change his style to achieve greater mainstream success.
On that same page, Ellroy said something else very interesting. He was asked if the characters in his novels ever "surprise" him. Ellroy said that they do not because his "relationship to them is exploitative."
What ever could James Ellroy mean by that?
Before going into the book, it is worth unpacking Ellroy's self-assessment of his work.
I. "Too dark:" I would agree. A James Ellroy novel is much darker than the average, mainstream police procedural mystery story. What is a James Ellroy novel? Take the television show, 'Criminal Minds,' about the team of FBI behavioral analysts who track down serial killers, and combine it with the show, 'The Shield,' about a unit of corrupt street cops in L.A. starring Michael Chiklis (remember 'The Commish'?). Then what you need to do is set it in 1950s Los Angeles, California, and you have the innards of a James Ellroy novel.
The 'darkness' comes from the nature of the atmosphere his work is designed to evoke: quite literally everybody's got an angle, everybody is corrupt or 'on the take' (at least by the standards of today); racism, anti-Semitism, institutional homophobia, sexism, alcoholism and drug abuse abounds almost everywhere you look; there is secret perversion. In this world it is, again quite literally, hard to know 'the good guys from the bad guys.' This is because Ellroy's stories feature so many Los Angeles police officers doubling as 'bagmen, 'enforcers,' or 'hit men,' for Cosa Nostra, Mafia, actual organized crime 'families.'
When you meet a Los Angeles police officer in a James Ellroy novel, you won't often lose money betting that he also provides some kind of extracurricular services for organized crime---and that includes the protagonists or 'heroes' of Ellroy's novels.
The 'darkness' of a James Ellroy novel comes from the fact that there tends not to be any available completely unvarnished, unambiguous, one hundred percent, 'white hat,' good guys. The protagonists 'heroes' are not merely 'complicated;' they are not merely 'good guys with their faults' and so forth. They tend to be thugs in their own right, however their depravity does have a floor beneath which they will not sink (and this is better than can be said of most!)---that is what makes them relatively 'heroic.'
II. Too densely plotted
Take the word 'dense,' and know that is means stuffed, fully-packed. Something that is dense has a lot of weight, and yet it may or may not be very 'big' in terms of volume. A James Ellroy novel is densely plotted, which means that his plots are stuffed, even over-stuffed with happenings.
You have heard the expression, 'everybody has a story.' Well, you read a James Ellroy novel and say to yourself, 'Boy! Ain't that the truth!' A James Ellroy novel features of roadmap of plots, subplots, and sub-sub plots.
III. Relentlessly violent
James Ellroy agreed with the internal assessment of the publishing industry, that his work is 'relentlessly violent.' Well, since everyone agrees that good fiction, of any kind, is replete with tension and conflict, violence or the threat of violence is a good way to achieve this. Wherever there is an opportunity or possibility for violence in a James Ellroy novel, the author takes it. The commission of or reference to violence is the steady background music of a James Ellroy novel.
IV. James Ellroy said, as we've seen, that his characters never "surprise" him because his "relationship to them is exploitative."
What might Mr. Ellroy mean by that?
I may not have a full answer to this question, but I think it means that as a writer, he exercise tight control over his characters (and therefore his stories). Every character is brought about to fulfill a well-defined purpose.
You see, James Ellroy is not doing that 'literary,' fancy schmancy, la-di-da 'sometimes my characters take on a life of their own' stuff. He is not doing that! He does not put himself in a position, as a writer, in which 'sometimes my characters lead me where they want to go despite myself,' and so on and so forth, and all that good stuff.
Perhaps that is one thing which separates 'genre' fiction from 'literary' storytelling.
It would appear, then, that Mr. Ellroy was saying that IF his "relationship" to his characters were not "exploitative" then, perhaps, his characters (if he were still writing some kind of fiction) would have room to "surprise" him.
There is a genre or sub-genre of fiction that I, personally, think of as the 'literary' crime novel. That is a novel in which a major crime (usually murder) is central to the plot; however, the characterizations are so rich and motivations so complex and multifaceted, and there are so many other things involved aside from the buildup to the crime and its aftermath----that even if you were to remove the crime element from the story, you would still have a compelling, 'literary' story on your hands.
For me, a short novel by Ian Pears called 'The Portrait' fits this description. Incidentally, if you would like to take a look at a review I wrote for that book, here it is.
James Ellroy novels are simply NOT built that way. Mr. Ellroy's books are, most emphatically, what they are: 'What you see is what you get,' and all that. You remove the fat and add more sugar in compensation. That is not a criticism, just an analogy.
Another little thing
Before you take on a James Ellroy novel, there is one more thing you should think about. Again, on page 9 in the introduction of Hollywood Nocturnes he describes himself as an author whose work is stylistically 'complex' and 'ambiguous' story-wise; and he believes that most readers find this 'perplexing.'
Well, what does all that mean?
We don't have to talk about what 'complex' means. I think you're getting an idea, from this review, of how challenging James Ellroy's work can be.
The 'ambiguous' thing deserves a word or two. What does James Ellroy mean by calling his own work 'ambiguous' story-wise? How does that translate into something one can use when he picks up a James Ellroy novel?
Don't the stories have the basic beginning, middle, and end?
Don't the main characters have specific goals which propel them from beginning, through the middle, and to the end?
Sure, of course.
Don't the main characters face obstacles and opposition---providing laudable tension and conflict---in trying to get what they want.
Absolutely. If there's one thing James Ellroy is good at is providing tension and conflict. He writes quintessential hard-boiled, tough guy fiction.
Then where-in-the-world does this 'ambiguity' come in?
Remember, I was just reporting what James Ellroy said about his own work. But if you put a gun to my head---(yeah, if you stopped me on the street and pulled a gun on me, demanding, "Hey you! Explain the ambiguity in James Ellroy novels.")---I suppose I would point to the moral relativism and situational ethics that permeate his storytelling. I'll discuss this in a minute.
Let's get into the actual book review of Hollywood Nocturnes.
I don't like to do this too often, but let us, together, read the summarizing blurb on the back of the book:
Dig it. A famous musician-cum-draft dodger is plotting the perfect celebrity snatch---his own. An ex-con raging on revenge in High Darktown becomes a cop's worst nightmare. When chasing kidnappers, two cops stumble on an okie town as bloody as the O.K. Corral. A strongarm for Howard Hughes and mobster Mickey Cohen finds himself playing both ends against the middle, all for a murderously magnificent moll. This is L.A., Ellroy style---corrupt cops, goons with guns, rattling roadsters---and all in the staccato rhythm of the streets. Hollywood Nocturnes shows us the seedy side of glamorous Hollywood, laid out like a corpse in the morgue.
Well, this sounds like the reader is in for one wild, exciting ride, right? Well, yes and no. You see, that description is packed into a single paragraph, as a single blurb at the back of the book, making one, me for example, think that Hollywood Nocturnes was a novel. But it is not a novel, it is a collection of short fiction by James Ellroy. I hadn't known that he writes short pieces.
The point is that I found that blurb at the back of the book convincing as a description of a single tale by Mr. Ellroy. What I'm saying is that the fact that I thought Hollywood Nocturnes was a novel, is some indication about his 'densely' packed plots.
In any event, Hollywood Nocturnes is a collection of short crime fiction by James Ellroy. We start off with a novella called Dick Contino's Blues (80 pages), followed by five other stories: High Darktown, Dial Axminster 6-400, Since I Don't Have You, Gravy Train, and Torch Number.
Okay, let's wrap this up
I'm not going to do plot summaries because you can get that anywhere. What I shall do is simply say a word or two---literally just a few sentences---about how each story in Hollywood Nocturnes works; I mean to 'reverse engineer' it for you. That is to say, that I will merely give you the 'keys,' as it were, to each story.
I want you to get as clear an idea as possible of what you will be getting should you decide to either buy this novel or check it out from your local public library. Let's do this
Dick Contino's Blues
This is the story about the "famous musician cum-draft dodger" who "is plotting the perfect celebrity snatch---his own."
This novella follows the formula I cited for the typical James Ellroy novel, with some modifications of course. Remember that I said the structure he adheres to is this: Take the show Criminal Minds (about the FBI profilers of serial killers) and combine it with the show The Shield (about corrupt cops in Los Angeles); now set the whole thing in 1950s Los Angeles, California, in a world of "corrupt cops, goons with guns, rattling roadsters---all in the staccato rhythm of the streets," indeed "the seedy side of glamorous Hollywood, laid out like a corpse in the morgue."
What does that mean?
Okay, when Mr. Ellroy writes in this way, his books are combination crime-mystery books. They are crime novels in the sense that the protagonist is involved with some ongoing criminal activity, so that the question is how and whether he will get away with it. It is a mystery in the sense that we are presented with a whodonnit, in the form of what is called a police procedural. The mystery is the question of the identity of the perpetrator of a string of horrific mutilation murders. This is true of Ellroy novels: L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, The Big Nowhere, and, with some modifications, this novella, Dick Contino's Blues.
As I said, this novella follows that structure with a twist. Dick Contino plans to have himself kidnapped in the hopes that the publicity will give his career a much needed 'shot in the arm,' as it were. Will he or won't he get away with it? That is the 'crime' aspect of the novella.
The second, 'mystery' track is the brutal murders of lover pairs that's scaring everybody out of their wits.
Let me just finish with this: These two tracks come together, in this story, in such a way as to bring to the mind the words: 'Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.'
In this story, the term 'High Darktown' refers to a rich black neighborhood in Los Angeles. We are talking about the relatively tiny black bourgeoisie subsection of the population. This is the story in which "[a]n ex-con [is] raging revenge in High Darktown [and] becomes a cop's worst nightmare."
What can I tell you about how this story works? Well, since I defined the term 'High Darktown' for you and the summarizing blurb I re-quoted talks about an "ex-con raging revenge" there, you might reasonably guess that there is some connection between a member of the black bourgeoisie and the ex-con thug---an ongoing, lucrative, criminal connection.
If you made that guess, you wouldn't be far off.
Dial Axminster 6-400
Axminster 6-400. It seems odd now but that's what telephone numbers looked like in the 1950s. The story is this one: "While chasing kidnappers, two cops stumble on an okie town as bloody as the O.K. Corral."
In Ellroy novels 'okie' can be short for someone from Oklahoma---as in he's an 'okie.' With this usage we're more specifically talking about someone 'country.' Okie can be used to refer to anyone who is, generally, 'country' of aspect.
Okie can be used to describe a place. To say that a town is 'okie,' is to say that it is a small, dusty, 'one-horse' kind of place, slow and lazy of atmosphere, and even somewhat hopeless.
At any rate, one of the police officers working the kidnapping case, is 'on-the-take,' as it were. Surprise, surprise. But he prefers to take his graft in cars, stolen cars that is. The telephone number is one he can call to get the 'skinny,' 'lowdown, or even 'dope' on a stolen car. The cop is plugged into a process whereby the car he wants kind of, sort of... slips into an untraceable black hole before it is funneled to him.
Anyway, the kidnap plot gets resolved in a surprising-but-really-unsurprising way (you must always understand that with a James Ellroy story 'nothing is ever as it seems,' cliché though it may be, nevertheless is a firm truism); and this cop's latest pursuit of a 'peach,' as he calls stolen cars he lusts after, is thwarted at the same time.
Since I Don't Have You
Here is a story in which Mr. Ellroy's self-assessment of his own work as 'ambiguous' seems to come into play, with moral relativism and situational ethics operative.
This is a damsel-in-distress story. The way these are conventionally worked out is roughly as follows: The hero extricates the 'damsel' from whatever trouble she had gotten into; puts her on a bus back to central Nebraska, where she came from; there she puts her life back together, kicks any substance abuse problem she may have; waitresses at the Pancake Haven while she takes classes at night; eventually gets her teaching credentials; becomes an elementary school teacher; marries a dairy farmer with whom she has a bunch of kids; and lives happily ever after.
Sorry but you don't get off that easy in a James Ellroy novel. Nobody does. Nobody. Ever.
There is a young woman who is the---how shall I put this?---kept woman of powerful mobster Mickey Cohen and the tycoon Howard Hughes, each of which is unaware that he's sharing his time with the other.
She gets herself mixed up with a scam that goes wrong and climaxes with murder, 'murder most foul.' The hero of this story---not much of one from certain angles---extricates her from that, and despite her protestations that she finds both Howard and Mickey tiresome, the only choice our hero gives her is: 1) the devil you know; or 2) the other devil you know.
You see, our hero has no intention of putting her on a bus back to clean central Nebraska. For he, our 'hero,' has been hired by both Mickey and Howard, at the same time, to find her.
So, what will you be getting when and if you read this story? Well, since I don't want to give away the plot, let me put it this way: 'Violence recoils upon the violent. And the schemer falls into the pit he digs for another.' This is an old saying by the fictional Victorian age private 'consulting' detective, Sherlock Holmes.
'Tables turn,' 'It's a tangled web we weave...,' 'Karma's a bi***, 'What goes around, comes around,' and all that.
This story is a most effective exposition of this theme. It involves a ex-con who thinks he's getting a 'fresh start.' But it turns out an old buddy of his is 'playing him for a fool.' Wait and see 'who gets the last laugh.'
In the 1950s, the expression to 'carry a torch for someone' meant to have a strong, ongoing romantic longing for someone. The title of this story, then, 'Torch Number,' is quite appropriate; and it is the 'torch' our hero carries for a lousy lounge singer which makes this offering classic noir: a man and a woman; sexual tension; a barrier between them that, somehow, only violence can remove or break down; but in the end, the woman (in the grand tradition of Eve who enticed Adam to eat the forbidden apple) proves to have been unworthy of her lover's sacrifice.
And all of this happens in the context of the World War Two internment of West Coast Japanese-Americans (Nisei).
Thank you for reading.