The essential contention of the Underworld USA trilogy ... is that America was never innocent. Here's the lineage: America was founded on a bedrock of racism, slaughter of the indigenous people, slavery, religious lunacy ... and nations are never innocent. Let alone nations as powerful as our beloved fatherland. What you have in
The Cold Six Thousand — which covers the years '63 to '68 — is that last gasp of pre-public-accountability America where the anti-communist mandate justified virtually any action. And it wasn't Kennedy's death that engendered mass skepticism. It was the protracted horror of the Vietnamese war.
— James Ellroy
One of the quintessential Mad Artists
of the 20th century, James Ellroy was born in 1948, and had a troubled childhood due to his parents' highly dysfunctional relationship that ended in their divorce. The key event in his life happened when he was just ten years old, when his mother was raped and murdered. The crime was never solved and Ellroy went to live with his father, who died seven years later. From there he dropped out of school and became a homeless, drug-addicted thief. After spending some time in jail he began to turn his life around by quitting drugs and getting a job as a caddy. However, his true passion became writing. His mother's murder had left him with a fascination of violent crime, much of it centered around the similar murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, popularly known as the "Black Dahlia" case. One of his novels is a fictionalized account of the case to give Short a bit more closure than she received in real life, one of the biggest cases of Creator Breakdown
in a career full of it.
His books include lots of Black and Grey Morality
and Deliberate Values Dissonance
, as well as Loads and Loads of Characters
. Particularly well-known is his "L.A. Quartet" - The Black Dahlia
, The Big Nowhere
, L.A. Confidential
, and White Jazz
Tropes this Author is known for include:
- Alliterative Name: He loves these. Wendell White, Ed Exley and Pierce Patchett in LA Confidential, Bucky Bleichert in Black Dahlia.
- Though Bucky's name is actually Dwight, and Wendell goes by Bud.
- Archnemesis Dad: Wayne Tedrow, Sr.
- Ate His Gun: Upshaw nearly goes out this way before realising that due to his homosexuality the imagery behind it would be used to mock him.
- Also Ward Littell at the end of The Cold Six Thousand
- The Atoner: Wayne Tedrow Jr and Dwight Holly, after his nervous breakdown.
- Author Appeal: Peeping.
- Incest and serial killers. For a given value of appeal/horrified fascination.
- Golf. Clandestine features pages and pages of it, and it turns up in several other novels. Ellroy used to be a caddy, and caddied up until the sale of his fifth book. Caddies feature prominently in Brown's Requiem, his first book.
- Homosexual rape is an almost disturbingly recurring motif.
- Ax-Crazy: Most of the characters to some extent, but Jean-Philippe and his Cuban mercs stand out.
- Bad Ass: Pete Bondurant, the physically imposing (6 feet 4 inches and muscular 230 pounds), chain-smoking, laconic ex-Marine, ex-cop, licensed PI, extortionist extraordinaire and a freelance Mafia hitman is arguably a rather vicious deconstruction of this trope. By the time of The Cold Six Thousand he is an emotional and physical wreck (he goes through a brain tumor and two heart attacks over the course of the story), wanting nothing more than to retire to a life of peace and quiet with his wife. Ellroy being Ellroy, he actually gets his wish but boy howdy, does he have to jump through the hoops for it.
- Been There, Shaped History: The protagonists of the Underworld USA trilogy, who are somehow involved in every major American political event from the 1960 Kennedy campaign to Watergate.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Don Crutchfield and Karen Sifakis.
- Crapsack World: Notable as his books, from The Black Dahlia on, are intended to tell the secret history of 20th century America
- Cold War: The setting for most of the Underworld USA Trilogy, specifically the early 60s-70s. Plus, The Big Nowhere features a subplot about a cop inflitrating a Communist group.
- Creator Breakdown: As noted above Ellroy's mother was murdered when he was young. As well as providing impetus and material for The Black Dahlia Ellroy wrote an autobiographical account of the effect it had on him in My Dark Places. He actually tried to investigate the case himself in the mid-'90s, before realizing that there was little point to it as most of the people involved were dead.
- Dirty Cop: It's fair to say that most of Ellroy's characters are either dirty cops or former dirty cops.
- Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Kemper Boyd, who simultaneously works for the Kennedy brothers, J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, and The Mafia.
- Driven to Suicide: Upshaw after his homosexuality is threatened to be leaked.
- Face-Heel Turn: Ward Littell in American Tabloid, Wayne Tedrow, Jr. in The Cold Six Thousand, Hideo Ashida in Perfidia.
- Fate Worse Than Death: The methods by which many of the characters are killed (although they do end up dead... eventually).
- Genre Shift: White Jazz and Blood's a Rover both end up in some very strange places for books that start out as hard boiled detective novels.
- Heel Face Door Slam: Almost all of his novels end with one of the protagonists reaching out for redemption and being killed off before he can achieve it.
- Though Dwight Holly probably gets it the worst of them all.
- Hero Killer: Dudley Smith hounds Upshaw into committing suicide and personally guns down Buzz Meeks.
- Hollywood Voodoo: In Blood's a Rover, though to be fair the focus is mostly on herblore and drugs, rather than zombies and magic. Plus it's an Ellroy book, so everything is shown as being bizarre and outlandish.
- Kill 'em All: There's pretty much no one left standing by the end of Blood's a Rover.
- Mr. Alt Disney: Raymond Dieterling, founder of Dream-a-Dream Land in the L.A. Quartet.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: This happens a lot. For example, in The Cold Six Thousand Wayne Tedrow Jr is trying to get away from the shadow of his father - a racist who has made a fortune publishing hate literature. He is dispatched to kill an unarmed black man, who has offended the wrong people in Vegas, for the titular amount of money. He cannot bring himself to do it. The man he was sent to kill ends up raping and murdering Wayne's wife. A similar thing happens in Bloods a Rover where Wayne goes to warn a black man that he is to be framed for a murder Wayne committed and he ends up having to kill him and an innocent bystander after the guy attacks him. He goes on to steal from the Mob and uses the proceeds to fund leftist causes in the Dominican Republic after seeing how minorities are treated there. He is randomly murdered while walking among the people he is trying to help. Dwight Holly is murdered by Scotty Bennett when he tries to prevent Bennett from killing Crutch.
- Though Wayne's death looks more like being Driven to Suicide and Dwight's does end up keeping Crutch alive by proxy.
- Sawed-Off Shotgun: A very common weapon in his books.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Pete Bondurant's service in WWII clearly took its toll on him. By the end of The Cold Six Thousand the life he's led until that point also catches up with him. Hard.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Blood's a Rover comes very close to this. As one of the (very few) surviving characters notes towards the end of the book, having gone through hell and finally uncovered the conspiracy: "He had [the] story now. Facts clicked into place, redundant. Who gives a shit?"
- Slashed Throat: How Upshaw kills himself. Ear to ear in one cut.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Pete Bondurant for Buzz Meeks: a disgraced ex-Dirty Cop turned Hollywood fixer who works as an enforcer for Howard Hughes.
- Took a Level in Badass: Don Crutchfield overcomes voodoo drug induced paralysis through sheer force of will, bites the head off a live rat just to prove he can and kills the two guys who did this to him and were about to murder him. He later kills Jean-Philippe and the mercs with a flamethrower and is responsible for the death of J. Edgar Hoover and the destruction of his blackmail files. He is the only main character to survive the book and at the end it is revealed that, following the events of the novel, he became a Hollywood power broker. This character is the chew toy for much of the story and his mob nickname is Dipshit.
- Villain Protagonist: The protagonists of the Underworld USA trilogy are a motley collection of extortionists, dope peddlers, mercenaries, con men, and assassins.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Notably Dudley Smith, although most of Ellroy's cop protagonists are this to some extent.
- Who Shot JFK?: Also Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. In American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand.
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Michael Martin Plunkett. Former Child Prodigy and a Serial Killer.
Works by Ellroy
Stand Alone Novels
Ellroy's first novels, written while caddying was still his full-time occupation. Accordingly golfing motifs appear quite frequently.
- Brown's Requiem
- Clandestine-Notable for introducing a lot of elements that would surface later on in the first L.A. Quartet. Also features the first non-canonical appearance of Dudley Smith. Almost reads as something of a prototype for the future first book in the L.A. Quartet The Black Dahlia.
- Killer on the Road
Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy
Follows the exploits of a brilliant but unfaithful LAPD Sergeant named Lloyd Hopkins in 1980s Los Angeles.
- Blood on the Moon
- Because the Night
- Suicide Hill
Perhaps the most famous collection of books by Ellroy, tied with the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy. Centers on the corruption and criminality of L.A. during it's golden age. Spans from 1947 to 1959.
- The Black Dahlia
- The Big Nowhere
- L.A. Confidential
- White Jazz
Underworld U.S.A Trilogy
More or less follows directly on from the L.A. Quartet, at least chronologically speaking. Has a much grander theatrical scale to it though, dealing with espionage and the dirty dealings of the United States as a whole. Several characters briefly mentioned in the L.A. Quartet also reappear in a much more prominent role. Spans from 1958 to 1972.
- American Tabloid
- The Cold Six Thousand
- Blood's a Rover
Second L.A. Quartet
A prequel of sorts to the events of the first L.A. Quartet. The narrative focus shifts back down a gear from the grand stage set by the Underworld U.S.A Trilogy, once again focusing on L.A. However, a distinct difference lies in the fact that the novels all take place in wartime America. Many characters from the first Quartet make appearances as is to be expected. Spans from 1942 to presumably 1945.