Cover of "American Tabloid"
Cover of American Tabloid

The Black Dahlia was the first James Ellroy book to grab me by the back of the head and bring it to a business meeting with a knee. Its rat-a-tat language is like a Pete Bondurant punch in the face.
Aaaahhh, it’s hard to write like James Ellroy. I don’t know if I’d want to, but I love reading him (apart from White Jazz, which was rrrrubbbishhh).

American Tabloid is his masterpiece. It gets you in a headlock and forces you to eat gravel sandwiches. It’s about three seriously flawed men: Kemper Boyd, Ward Littell, and Pete Bondurant, all mobbed up and compromised by money. It’s about the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy assassination, and the mob, FBI, and country music’s involvement in them (I made the last one up a little bit).

Whether the story stands up to historical inspection is not the point – Ellroy’s conspiracy is a fever that won’t cure until you’ve finished it.

The nuts storyline hammers the reader with its style. There are. One. Sentence. Paragraphs all over this thing, and it is hard to grasp for the first few pages. Once you do, you’ll hold on to the end.

It’s not to everyone’s taste. Some feel his rhythm keeps the characters distant, thus not letting them develop, and that the plot is just too wild and densely layered to keep impatience at bay. Well, the language is fast, but it has the immediacy of being written on one of those old typewriters as it happens (maybe by some hardboiled journalist). And when is any conspiracy simple? You just need to keep up and enjoy the names popping up: Frank Sinatra (mobbed up), Miles Davis (mobbed up, if I remember correctly), Jimmy Hoffa (errrr… mobbed up), and others I can’t quite remember.

His language is homophobic, racist, and expletive-ridden – but set within the context of the times it rings true. As one reviewer on Goodreads has put it: “I can’t decide if James Ellroy is the greatest living American crime writer, or a racist, misogynist, homophobic jerk. I guess both are possible”. However, read Blood’s a Rover and you’ll see only the first part of that is true.

If you haven’t read it, and you like crime fiction, I cannot recommend it enough.

I wish I had written it.

Further reading:


Is James Ellroy the best judge of his own novels?

American Tabloid sample