James Ellroy, ‘White Jazz’ (1992)

10262139_10152868967747718_3744188894519310980_nI’m talking at this upcoming conference on crime writer James Ellroy and his influence on British writer David Peace. As preparation I’ve been re-reading the Demon Dog’s Los Angeles Quartet, all four books of which are worth looking at. But if you want something truly revolutionary start with White Jazz, the last book in the series. There’s a quote on the front of my (now signed) copy from Ian Rankin:

‘[Ellroy] essentially invents a language. I think the book is crime fiction’s Ulysses. This was crime fiction trying to be more than crime fiction and is extraordinary.’

You’re not kidding, Ian. What struck me when I first read the book was just how fast it was. White Jazz is a shade over 400 pages long, right at the top end of what I regularly read. And yet I demolished it in 5 days, half of it in less than 48 hours. You can’t not read it that fast – it’s written in a style than runs at 1,000 miles an hour, taking the reader inside the head of corrupt police officer Lieutenant Dave Klein – lawyer, hitman, slum landlord, blackmailer and bagman for the mob.

Ellroy has said elsewhere that the style of the book developed in discussion with his publisher, and partly as a result of the significant cuts he made to preceding book L.A. Confidential. Ellroy removed 100 pages whilst still keeping the breadth of the narrative by – in his own words – ‘cutting every unnecessary word from every sentence.‘ Similarly, White Jazz was originally written in a more discursive style, but Ellroy was unhappy with the results – they didn’t seem to fit with the character of Klein – so he reverted to a more clipped style. ‘I saw that if I eliminated words from his speech, I would develop a more convincing cadence for him: paranoid, jagged, enervated,‘ Ellroy said in this interview with the Paris Review that is well worth reading

james ellroy2The book is also deviously complex; and trying to keep up with the various plotlines, double-crosses and themes is no easy task. I’m not even going to attempt a plot summary – which plot do you describe? But for anyone concerned by this, I would encourage you not to worry too much. Treat White Jazz like a Shakespeare play – you don’t need to understand every single line in order to grab the general thrust of the action. Stop to check every reference, every fact, every name, and you’ll miss the rush of the book itself, which is surely part of the joy of it. White Jazz is the sort of book you get mugged by – and once you’ve finished it and picked yourself up off the ground, you need to read it again. I know I will.

It’s certainly a book full of lessons. Reading it, it’s amazing how skilfully Ellroy picks out the telling detail and leaves out the rest. As I read recently, it’s not just the music that makes a great pop record but also the silences between the notes. Ellroy knows how to emphasise his words by leaving gaps between them, letting the reader join them up. White Jazz wasn’t universally acclaimed when it was first published – it’s certainly an acquired taste – but I loved it. All four of Ellroy’s L.A Quartet books are worth a look, but from a stylistic point of view it’s the last one that will really stick in your head. Probably whether you want it to or not.

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