Think of American crime fiction and you hear the voice of a sardonic loner. Decades after the wry, bitter aphorisms of Philip Marlowe, gumshoes from Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone to Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder still speak in the same idiom of cutting wit shot through with psychic pain and existential defeat. One reason that James Ellroy’s dark, remorseless fiction is so compelling is that, alone among crime novelists, he shows you what happens when the pain finally takes over and good guys go bad. In White Jazz, his magnificently ambitious saga of personal and political corruption in Los Angeles circa 1958, the narrator is lawyer-turned-cop Dave Klein, who, by page 22, has skimmed money from a bookie bust, tossed a federal witness out a ninth-story window, assisted in the blackmailing of a political candidate, and sifted the embers of a torrid affair with his own sister. Crooked, crazy, rotting from the inside, and ”42 going on dead,” Klein is a prototypical Ellroy hero: Whether he’ll end up putting a gun barrel in his mouth or somebody else’s is one of the issues that gives the novel its relentless momentum.
As Klein begins to suspect that he’s about to be sacrificed for the greater misdeeds of the LAPD, Ellroy’s plot spirals outward to encompass the sins of an entire toxic metropolis. Though it’s self-contained, White Jazz completes a quartet of novels (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and L.A. Confidential are the others) that offer a blood-splashed vision of post-World War II Los Angeles as an abyss of criminality and derangement. In this installment, Howard Hughes, Joan Crawford, mobster Mickey Cohen, and studio chief Harry Cohn rub elbows (and often more than elbows) with a fictional cast of hit men, whores, hopheads, peepers, stoolies, molesters, and murderers. Ellroy’s L.A. is an infested carcass of a city whose blood rot affects everything and everyone — it’s the world that Chandler and Chinatown only implied.
That may sound like lofty praise, but Ellroy deserves it. No other contemporary crime writer approaches the intensity of his fiercely complex plotting, his fevered prose, or his ability to entwine stories of holed-up losers hurtling toward hell with a larger vision of the forces of greed and power that shape a city. That said, though, White Jazz may not be the novel that blasts Ellroy into the mainstream. Told in Klein’s stream-of-consciousness voice, it’s often a tough read — 349 pages of raw sinew and jagged jump cuts between half a dozen plots. Out of context, it’s sometimes as incomprehensible as Esperanto (”Palm squadroom bulls for leads; keep Junior on the case legit. No legit B&E man? — Joe Pervert buys the dive”). But at its best, Ellroy’s distilled prose achieves a lethal purity. Here, for example, is his view of the mass arrest of a group of men caught with prostitutes: ”Epidemic boo-hoo — ‘DON’T TELL MY WIFE!’ Leg-shackle clangs — the prostie vans shook…Panic down below: Shriners bagged en masse. Five men, fez hats flying — a whore grabbed one and pranced.” An exploding flashbulb couldn’t capture it more vividly.
Newcomers to Ellroy may want to start with the more accessible Big Nowhere or L.A. Confidential instead, but they shouldn’t miss White Jazz, in which the author’s gifts only grow. His ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect, from the delirium of a religous-fanatic landlady to the woozy hepcat slang of a ’50s tabloid filled with giggly ”sinuendo.” And in Klein, a trapped creep using all of his instincts to stay alive, Ellroy has created a superb character — a dirty cop who, oddly, is also a great one, shrewd, intuitive, suspicious, and relentlessly self-preserving. ”The public has no idea what justice costs the men who perform it,” says one of White Jazz’s more cynical men in blue. By the novel’s end, Ellroy has mined that concept for every bit of irony and truth it contains. A