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James Ellroy

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Martin Stanley on James Ellroy’s White Jazz

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.

You can buy Martin Stanley’s Fighting Talk from Amazons US and UK.

Renato Bratkovič interviews me over at RadikalNews

You can read the beast here.

Author Interview: Ed James

Welcome to a new section I hope to expand in the future, asking authors whose work I’ve liked about ‘stuff’.

Kicking it all off is prolific Scottish crime novelist Ed James, author of the Scott Cullen series: GHOST IN THE MACHINE (read my review here), DEVIL IN THE DETAIL, and FIRE IN THE BLOOD. He released his new book DYED IN THE WOOL yesterday, Monday 8 July 2013.

Image of Ed James

Can you give some background about yourself?

Certainly. I’m a Scottish writer in my mid-30s. I don’t do this gig full-time (boy would I love to) and instead work in the financial services sector in IT. I’ve been writing for eight years now, and GHOST IN THE MACHINE is the first thing that I was comfortable enough with that I put out there – that took three years to nail, but most of that was me learning.

You’ve written four books. Which one are you most satisfied with?

I’ll say it’s the fourth that I’m most pleased with – DYED IN THE WOOL – which I’m just in the middle of submitting to Amazon for sale on Monday [8 July 2013]. It’s taken longer than the second and third but it’s richer and stronger. I also used a professional editor for the first time – previously it had been friends and family, and I felt guilty about chasing them and so on – and that really helped at both a structural and line level. Of the first three, I think DEVIL IN THE DETAIL is the best.

Which was the easiest to write, which the hardest?

The easiest was DYED IN THE WOOL, though big changes in my personal life made it difficult. The reason it was easy is that I understand my craft that much better, and I’ve got my process/method up and running which certainly works for me.

GHOST was certainly the hardest – it went through about ten major drafts before I’d even got the story sorted.

 What made it hard? The plot? The language? Something else?

Plot, definitely. Looking back at the very first draft – which I did for a recent redraft – the thing I noticed that was good was the dialogue (and most of my books tend to be dialogue). What was weak in terms of writing was description, which later drafts really focused on improving, but mainly the plot was the hard bit. The thing I learnt from that was to get the story nailed at synopsis/outline level – it’s much easier throwing 10,000 words of outline around than 100,000 words of novel. That’s not to say the “architect” approach (as opposed to “gardener”) will give a perfect novel first time – it won’t – but it does get the big things sorted and allow you to really focus on the detail level. I improvise a lot at the detail level in terms of characterisation and language but I can’t do it for plot – it’s just too much to focus on writing and plotting at the same time.

Where’d you get Bain from? Is he somebody you read about, or someone you know and then gave a badge to?

There are a few people in there. He’s an arrogant bastard and that comes from a manager I had at work who had no concept of self-analysis or introspection. He’s an angry bastard and that comes from a mate, though that’s more extreme. He’s a sweary bastard and that’s influenced by a couple of test managers I’ve worked with, any Scottish football fan but also Malcolm Tucker from THE THICK OF IT, which is a UK TV series with some world-class swearing.

In terms of name, Bain comes from a neighbour of my girlfriend from years ago who used to play really loud music at all hours and we got into big arguments with him.

Did you deal with the arrogant manager the way Cullen does? As in seethe, cool down, analyse the situation, then make him look like a silly bugger with a cool solution?

​Yes and no. A lot of the time, I seethed and let it eat away at me. Over the last few years I’ve learnt to cope in those situations, and I’ve also become adept at managing managers, if that makes sense. Turning a sympathetic eye to guys like Bain, they just want to do the right thing (though the definition of right thing in Bain’s head is perhaps skewed) and you can use them as weapons.

​A lot of the prep for writing is in the “I wish I’d said that” after the event analysis, where you run through the scenario in your head again until you win…

 How scary is it to think that there are Bains out there trying to solve cases?

I like to think it’s fiction, but sadly it’s not that far off. In reality, I think British policing has sorted itself out to a large extent, away from the 70s excesses you’d read in a David Peace novel, but not too far with the Stephen Lawrence stuff going on just now. Maybe there are Bains, but they’re hiding in Cullen’s clothing…

Could you conceive of a Bain spin-off, like Gene Hunt going solo after Life on Mars?

Another thing about Bain is that he’s meant to be the typical Scottish DI. In another world, he’d be the protagonist, rather than antagonist. There are a lot of books about that sort of copper… I did consider writing a short story from his perspective – called BANE – but I never got round to it. And he features quite heavily in book four, shall we say.

The closest to a Bain solo book would be FILTH by Irvine Welsh…

 Why crime? Have you ever thrilled to breaking the law?

No comment!

Seriously, I find the books to be seriously engrossing, both from the police process side to the “inside the head of a killer” side. Ian Rankin said that crime novels are novels that reflect society and I fully agree. I’ve reflected many facets of society in my first three – social media, big banks, paedophilia, drug use, religion, alcoholism, family feuds – and it’s something I love doing and have continued in book four.

 What’s your favourite crime novel?

BLACK AND BLUE by Ian Rankin. That’s the peak of Rebus. The story is incredible and the way it links to a real life crime is genius.

Other notable books are anything from James Ellroy’s LA QUARTET (in fact, anything by him with the exception of the Lloyd Hopkins stuff), plus any David Peace. Worthy entries include FILTH and CRIME by Irvine Welsh.

Does excitement or fear grip you at the prospect of James Franco adapting Ellroy’s American Tabloid?

​​I’ve got a lot of time for him. When I saw him in the first Spider-Man film I thought he was a generic Hollywood actor, but he’s done some very good stuff since as an actor, things like Pineapple Express which is a film I totally love. Whether he’s right for adapting Ellroy, who knows – I try to keep the books and films separate anyway…

What’s your favourite overall novel?

THE CROW ROAD by the late Iain Banks. As a Scotsman (not a particularly proud one, mind) it really speaks to me. So much of it is just perfect. Strangely enough, you just reviewed that on your blog… I was seriously affected both when he announced his cancer and when he eventually died.

What do crime novels have to tell us as a species/society, if anything?

That we’re fucked. Seriously fucked. There are too many people on the planet and we don’t manage or organise ourselves very well – and we spend too much money on the wrong things. Individually, people focus on the wrong things through choice or peer pressure. Corporations hold too much power.

But I’d also say that it’s not like we’ve come from some amazing period of enlightenment to where we are now. In a lot of ways, we’re in the best times ever – crime rates are high, but I’d suggest that more people are reporting them and more people are coming to justice (the super-prison arguments aside, obviously). I could see our society going two ways: downwards into a climate change-fuelled nightmare; or upwards where we sort our planet and our society out, and we do the right things – like get so many people off the planet into space and so on. Yeah, I do like sci-fi.

Do you see differences between Scottish and English crime writing?

Yes. One of the things I’m proud of Scotland for is its sarcastic, untrusting attitude. Everything is questioned, nothing taken seriously. England tends to have a more rosy spin on things and misses that bite. That said, I have read a lot of incredible English crime novels, mainly MARK BILLINGHAM and DAVID PEACE. I have read a number of celebrated crime authors from south of the border where I just can’t get past the first few chapters. A lot of them tend to read more like screenplays or teleplays than novels – Scottish crime writers tend to celebrate the novel as an artform in itself. Also, I think Scottish crime tends to have a lot of humour – and not forced, jolly narration humour, but real comedy. CHRIS BROOKMYRE and STUART MACBRIDE are classic examples of the wide spectrum of Scottish humour.

 What differences do you see between British/Scottish crime novels and the American variety?

Guns. American crime has a lot of guns. When you have a gun in a British novel, it’s an extreme event, but guns are so commonplace in America. It’s much easier to kill someone in America by virtue of that. That’s not to say we’re any better as people or whatever, we’ve just got far fewer guns.

What’s the best crime film ever made? Why?

It’s got to be either PULP FICTION or HEAT. Why?

PULP FICTION is an absolute masterpiece – the dialogue, the action, the humour, the characters, the off-piste structure. Tarantino hasn’t made a film as good since, but then I don’t think anyone has.

HEAT is just on that fine line between the excitement of a film and the depth and intensity of a TV series. It’s not very long, but it feels like so much happens and you get inside the heads of both PACINO and DE NIRO’s characters. A lot of hype centred around the scene where they’re onscreen for the first time together, but the whole film has that electricity.

What’s your favourite Pulp Fiction moment? “That’s a pretty fuckin’ good milkshake” perhaps?

There are so many good moments, it’s hard to pin it down. One of the strengths of the film is how many storylines there are. The most memorable scene is when Vincent and Jules are driving the car and the gun accidentally goes off [blowing poor Marvin’s head off]. That hair-trigger violence is what really sets the tension with that film – anything could happen. The scene where Butch sees Marcellus in the car as well… I need to watch it again!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I’d love to be writing full-time, I really would. Nothing excites me more than writing.

DYED v1 GREY 30Jun13

Thanks to Ed for taking time out to get involved, though his dodging of the question about breaking the law means he should get a knock on the door from a Bain-style inspector any day soon. Watch out sunshine…

You can buy Ed James’ books from the following links:

http://ow.ly/mL4zF (USA)

http://tinyurl.com/kv4lvmf (Dyed in the Wool – USA)

http://tinyurl.com/ly9b3ap (UK)

http://tinyurl.com/lm87xmw (Dyed in the Wool – UK)

Stuff I Wish I’d Written: American Tabloid, James Ellroy

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

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