Hi Martin, which book are we talking about?
White Jazz by James Ellroy
What’s the synopsis?
The plot of this bad boy is almost too labyrinthine to boil down. But it basically involves very bad cop, Dave Klein, an LAPD vice unit lieutenant, lawyer, and part-time mob hitman, being played against numerous vested interests (various strands of the mob, corrupt police officers) by Ed Exley with the ultimate intention of bringing down Exley’s nemesis, Dudley Smith. Meanwhile, Smith – who’s just as smart and ruthless as Exley – plays similar games with Klein. That’s as much as I can give away without spoiling various nuances of the story. This beast is as complex as elaborate circuitry and almost as difficult to navigate.
White Jazz is the kind of book which would make you think twice about reporting a crime to the cops in case it pulled you into a hellscape you had no chance of escaping. Did the book’s paranoia infect you?
The book’s paranoia is infectious. Coming from Teesside (where police corruption has sometimes had a happy home), lack of trust in the police is not uncommon. The jagged nature of the prose affected me in a considerably more profound way. It certainly infected my own writing (at least for a short while). Ellroy may not write first-person narratives often. But he should, because his prose gets under the skin with considerable ease.
One critic said, “No doubt the violence done to the English language is meant to mirror the violence done to humanity by its fellow humanity (I’m being charitable here). But we can’t really begin to care about characters who never even get to inhabit a complete sentence.”
His prose is definitely tough at the beginning, and I had a big problem with it in The Cold Six Thousand, but it works here. You say infected, you’re right – it’s like a fever. The protagonist, Lt. David Klein is a walking fever. What do you make of him?
Dave Klein is one of my favourite protagonists. Don’t get me wrong, he’s utter scum (murderer, slum lord, and all-round villain) but he’s also smart enough and self-aware enough to know this. Neither Ed Exley nor Dudley Smith possess this level of self-awareness; in their own ways they believe they are good men. Klein knows he’s a bad man, and understands sometimes it takes a bad man to catch or punish even worse human beings.
What’s Klein’s drive?
Money certainly doesn’t drive Klein, because he already has it through various illicit and illegal methods. Although he’ll take it if it’s there. Klein has the usual Ellroy tropes of voyeurism and kink (incestuous thoughts for his sister certainly count high on that factor), but ultimately I’d say he’s driven to be a solid detective and solve something big (even if nobody but Ed Exley realises it). He’s driven to make a break from Los Angeles and the grubby life he’s leading.
You said in a previous interview that you don’t need a protagonist to be likeable, as long as they don’t whine or come across as self-pitying. Klein is not likeable, but he has his dark demons to contend with. How does he deal with them?
Being the practical sort, Klein kills a lot of his problems. Self-pity isn’t a trait Klein has much use for, but his self-loathing forms anger he uses to solve some of his issues. Dudley Smith and Ed Exley he deals with using cunning and smarts. Some of his demons he runs away from – such as his issues with his sister. Without giving too much away, as character arcs go, Dave Klein’s is a downward arc. Yes, he learns things about himself, but one does wonder whether the price he pays for ‘enlightenment’ comes at too high a price.
What’s Ed Exley’s world view? In LA Confidential he came off priggish but full of righteousness. In the end he took a turn away from the manual to fulfil his ambition.
How does his character develop in White Jazz?
Exley’s still a ruthless climber, and still cold and distant, but in White Jazz he’s consumed by his hatred for Dudley Smith. Exley’s use of Dave Klein to fulfil his ambition of bringing down Smith is incredibly cynical. He doesn’t care who gets hurt in the execution of his plan. He knows what Klein is, and sees him as an asset to be used and disposed of as he sees fit. If Klein wins, great. But if he loses, Exley will find some other way to approach Smith.
So what’s Dudley Smith’s view of it all? Is he a cynical power grabber, or does he have a higher purpose?
Dudley Smith might be the most cynical and venal Police officer ever committed to print. He’s a racist, multiple murdering, thieving, blackmailing, crime lord. He’s a mobster with a badge. But he’s also a locquacious and highly entertaining character. His only purpose (at least before being watered down in Perfidia) is for the betterment of Dudley Smith.
Do you think Ellroy sees the world like this, that our institutions are corrupt because people are corrupt? Or is he out to entertain in the darkest way possible?
Ellroy is a strange one. He’s a bundle of contradictions. A right-winger who makes his left-leaning characters the most sympathetic. He’s a ‘Christian’ who swears like a docker and chases women relentlessly. His worldview is jaundiced and yet he seems to love it. He definitely sees people and institutions as corrupt, particularly those more clandestine operations, such as the FBI and certain elements of law enforcement – at least within his fiction. He’s such a contradictory character in real life that he’s hard to gauge.
I was convinced Ellroy had turned communist by the time I got to the end of Blood’s a Rover. Have you read it?
I have read it. I enjoyed Blood’s a Rover, but for somebody as disciplined as Ellroy the plotting is surprisingly sloppy (particularly the way he kills off Wayne Tedrow Jr). It’s especially disappointing when you consider how tight American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand are. But it’s still better than Perfidia.
The left-wingers definitely get more sympathetic treatment than those on the right in BaR. Considering he likes to sell himself as a right-wing conservative Christian, Ellroy writes some remarkably good communist characters. That’s what makes him so damn hard to gauge. I’ll be interested to hear his thoughts on Trump (I bet he’s got some interesting things to say), especially when you realise the Russian election interference has the kind of interlocking narratives that Ellroy loves so much.
An Ellroy take on the Trump presidency would be something.
You said Ellroy influenced your early writing, as he did mine – what pulled you away from his style to your own?
Ellroy’s style is too strong and direct and recognisable to read and not be affected by it. White Jazz in particular challenges its readers, but it also has a marked effect on writers. After reading Ellroy my sentences get shorter, my descriptions become less detailed and I start to OD on semi-colons. My stories won’t work in Ellroy’s style. I like pared back prose, but ultimately as a writer I prefer a bit more fat on my sentences than Ellroy provides. That’s why I never read any of his work during the editing process.
Which of Ellroy’s books did you read first?
Blood on the Moon. Didn’t like it all that much, which is why I didn’t pay much attention to Black Dahlia initially when it first came out. What a mistake that was.
Did Black Dahlia come next? That’s the first of his I read. What made you go back to him?
No, it was the rest of the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy and then Black Dahlia. As I didn’t like Blood on the Moon, I just let Ellroy pass me by until the novel of LA Confidential came out. Then I went back to Dahlia and loved it. And then I started on the rest of them. Having been on a diet of Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson up to that point, Ellroy felt like something new and fresh (especially The Big Nowhere).
Ellroy said all movie adaptations of his works are dead. He’s hated all of them except LA Confidential.
Could White Jazz work? And who’d star in it?
I’m not sure it could without major adaptation. White Jazz is kind of the culmination of things that begin with The Big Nowhere, it has plot strands that extend from LA Confidential, along with a multitude of plots that solely belong to that book. There will need to be some serious simplification for it to work as a film. I always thought George Clooney would make a great Klein, but he’s too old now. Not sure who might make the grade now.
I’m sure a TV adaptation would work a treat, though the film adaptation of LA Confidential worked great as a stand-alone.
What do you think of the Underworld USA trilogy? American Tabloid is my favourite Ellroy novel of them all.
Love American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand (although the prose is a definite challenge). I like Blood’s A Rover but don’t love it. As a whole it’s an impressive achievement.
Have you reached peak White Jazz in your own writing, yet?
God, no. If I ever get close to White Jazz in terms of brilliance I’ll probably quit writing and live forever on my one moment of undoubted excellence.
If I come up with anything of the scale, ambition, and execution of the LA Quartet, or the Underworld USA trilogy, I’ll be done as a writer.
In some respects, Ellroy would have been better off starting something entirely original than going back to a new sequence of LA novels. Perfidia ain’t great, and dilutes both Dudley Smith and The Black Dahlia.
If I write something great, I’d like to think I could walk away knowing I didn’t need to add to it and somehow water down my previous achievement.
You’ve just released the latest of your Stanton Brothers thriller series. I hope it’s doing really well. What’s next from you?
Fighting Talk is selling fewer copies than I’d expected; a situation that’s probably my fault because of my inconsistent release schedule. I should try and publish my stuff faster (a yearly cycle, or every six months), and maintain some sort of consistency. You have to keep your readers connected, otherwise they forget you’re around (understandable when it comes to ebooks). It’s something I need to improve upon. For the rest of the year, I’ve got a novella Get Santa (collected together with some previously released Stanton Bros shorts) coming in October/November and then another book that may arrive before the year end (or otherwise in January). In 2019, I’ll hopefully finish and polish The Amsterdamned. I’m going to try and hawk that novel to a publisher rather than self-publish. I think it deserves better than my rather rudimentary attempts at marketing. Fingers crossed there’s a suitable publisher for this labyrinthine, extremely violent tale. But I think with a little work it could actually be something really good.
Martin, you’ve been a star. Thanks for a top interview.
Thanks for the great questions, Jason. I’ve enjoyed it.