In the evolution of the modern police story, there is a straight line from Ed McBain, the greatest of all procedural writers, to Joseph Wambaugh, who showed the real life of police officers, on and off the job, to James Ellroy, whose ambitious novels involve cops as they are integrated into a greater political and sociological universe.
Tips of the hat go to other significant figures, such as Lawrence Treat, who invented the procedural; Robert Daley, whose best sellers rivaled the successes of Mr. Wambaugh's in the 1970s; Georges Simenon, whose Maigret novellas relied more on intuition than procedure; the impeccable Michael Connelly; the inspired Lucas Davenport in the Prey series of John Sanford; the always inventive George Pelecanos; and the British superstars: Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, and John Harvey.
Mr. Ellroy is probably best known for "L.A. Confidential" and, the world being what it is, this is largely due to the Oscar-nominated film based on it. This may well change as the movie version of "The Black Dahlia" will be released next month and which, if advance word is any indication, is a humdinger.To coincide with the opening of the motion picture, a new trade paperback edition of "The Black Dahlia" (Mysterious Press, $13.99, 337 pages) has just been released.
One of the authors I have most admired and respected for more than 20 years, Mr. Ellroy has produced works of such power, originality, and integrity that it is not unreasonable to say he is among the handful of the most influential writers of the past two decades.The machine gun staccato of his prose often reads like a very long telegram composed by a mad genius, perhaps with violent tendencies.
Everything nonessential is pruned, yet the dense pages mercilessly hold the reader throughout stories of crime and murder, moral degeneracy and violence, but also of nobility, courage, and redemption. If the novels are not understood as serious literature, then the reader needs to be offered a different kind of fiction in tune with his intellect, like comic books or Hardy Boys novels.
Full disclosure: Near the beginning of Mr. Ellroy's career, I was his editor and publisher, then also became a friend close enough to be the best man at his first wedding, so I am not unbiased. Nonetheless, with unstinting praise from such individuals as Elmore Leonard, Jonathan Kellerman, and Harlan Ellison, as well as from every major American publication, I (for a change) fall into the mainstream of critical opinion.
Of all his books, I have always regarded "The Black Dahlia" as his masterpiece. It is based on the true story of a young woman, Elizabeth Short, who was murdered in an especially brutal fashion in Los Angeles in 1947. Her body, cut in half and eviscerated, was found in a vacant lot — a crime that remains unsolved to this day.
Mr. Ellroy's mother, also a woman who favored bars and men perhaps more than she should have, was also murdered in L.A. — another crime that remains on the books as unsolved. The novel is dedicated to her, and Mr. Ellroy has written a long, poignant afterword in which he describes the connection he felt to Betty Short as a result of his relationship with his own mother — and the fate that befell them both.
Pretty much all serious readers have read Mr. Ellroy, and I have witnessed (and participated in) fiery arguments about which book is his best. After a few paperback originals, he wrote the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy ("Blood on the Moon," "Because the Night," and "Suicide Hill"), which did not enjoy great success when first released. To illustrate my own genius as an editor and publisher, I wanted Mr. Ellroy to do another Hopkins novel, but he insisted he was ready to write "the book I was born to write," as he stated it.
It has long since been obvious that he was absolutely right. It took my breath away.The rich prose, the characters who spoke like none other in crime fiction, the tension of the search for the murderer, and the shaded cityscape against which the action takes place all combined to make the novel as chilling as a nightmare, as real as an ice pick in the neck.
Readers, critics, and booksellers had the same visceral response, and, after multiple hardcover printings, it got onto West Coast best-seller lists and went on to make the New York Times list in paperback.
His next novel, "The Big Nowhere" (and doesn't this guy have the greatest titles?),was the second in what he called "The L.A. Quartet.""L.A. Confidential" was next, but it was delivered way too long — too many pages, too many words. Most authors, when asked to cut a book, remove a sub-plot. Mr. Ellroy cut 200 pages by removing words he regarded as extraneous, and his telegraphic style was born.Too many writers have emulated the truncated sentence structure, but just because you mumble doesn't mean you're Marlon Brando.
Some readers have argued for "White Jazz" as their favorite of Mr. Ellroy's novels, and I can't count the number who aver that "American Tabloid" is the best of all. Mr. Ellroy would probably claim "The Cold Six-Thousand" as his best work, as it is certainly his longest and most ambitious.
But, for me, it's "The Black Dahlia." The painting used for the cover of the original edition hung on the wall of my office for 20 years. I saw more of Betty Short than of any woman I've ever known. Her picture is haunting. The book — her story — is haunting. If you're not afraid of being haunted yourself, get a copy of this new edition and read it. Any bookseller worth his salt will give you a money back guarantee.
Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual "Best American Mystery Stories." He can be reached at [email protected].