Founding Fathers: "Genealogies of Violence" in James Ellroy's L.A. Quartet
My basic design as a novelist is to recreate America in the 20th century through crime novels. . . I believe in the continuum. I want you to feel that it goes on and on and on and on and on and on. - Ellroy, in Shelley 19
In talking about his "design as a novelist," James Ellroy often returns to his role as a debunker of comfortable, reassuring national myths. Crime fiction, he argues, is naturally suited to conveying the reality of America's brutal, expansion-minded twentieth century. Even in American Tabloid (1995), which moves away from the conventions of crime fiction, his main subject is the criminality at the heart of American political life - "politics as crime, the private nightmare of public policy."1 The violence of recent decades cannot be seen as a "fall from grace" because "You can't lose what you lacked at conception": "America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets" (AT 5). America demythicized - the American dream as nightmare - is familiar enough territory. What Ellroy does is to use the more extreme possibilities of the crime novel to restore to this well-worn truth its capacity to disturb. He has said that terror is "the missing component in American crime fiction" (Erickson 18) and that his aim is to make the genre confrontational and unsettling. Although his views are in many ways those of an old-fashioned, disillusioned liberal, he often identifies himself as a right-winger, and this seems as much as anything to do with his determination to tell the truth as he sees it, however "politically incorrect" that may turn out to be. Of his earlier novel, Because the Night (1985), he says, "There's a liberalism that I despise in crime fiction, and I wanted to create a realistic Los Angeles cop of the time, with a full component of prejudices, and place him in various violent contexts" (Silet 241). Both the exorbitant violence and the abundance of characters who are outspokenly fascist, racist and homophobic are justified by Ellroy on the grounds of faithful representation: this is what the '40s and '50s in Los Angeles were really like. What many have seen as outrageous excesses of action and speech are part of a dense texture of contemporary historical detail which is intended, in its shocking specificity, to give new life to the theme of dishonest myth-making. Ellroy is an ambitious writer, and his objective seems always to make this circumscribed historical and geographical framework the site of a more wide-ranging critique. The novels of the "L.A. Quartet" (1987-92) recreate the Los Angeles underworld from 1947 to 1959, with its grisly murders, psychopathic killers and obsessive, deeply compromised police investigations. It is a portrait that contains, however, a much more general anatomisation of American dreams and realities: as Ellroy says in interview, the novels of the Quartet become "increasingly political" in their representation of what was the beginning of "half a century of tumult and change in America."2 In demythicizing the "golden age" of the postwar decade, he uses the tangled stories of how crimes originate to image a country founded on corruption and violence: "I want to show genealogies of violence from their roots on" (Dollar).
The idea of a genealogy or continuum is crucial to Ellroy's conception of "revisionist" historical crime novels: a "secret world" is revealed behind what is nostalgically viewed as a more placid, less turbulent time, and it is here that he locates the real foundation of the more openly violent society of the 1990s: "The 1950s to me is darkness, hidden history, perversion behind most doors waiting to creep out. . . The 1950s to most people is kitsch and Mickey Mouse watches and all this intolerable stuff" (Williams 85). The story he tells centers on the development of postwar Los Angeles - a narrative of the rise of a great American city, which expresses, like any foundation myth, the standards and assumptions of those who have continued to live in that society. In terms of the structure of his plots, Ellroy's genealogical investigations involve the revelation of hidden family connections. Understanding one's founding fathers is only possible when fathers have been found. The crimes of each novel are fully explained only when fathers have been identified and missing family links have been supplied. This recurrent pattern has both individual and public dimensions. On a personal level, establishing "the genealogy of victim and victimiser" allows the writer, as Ellroy says, "to take the bad guys back to their childhood and follow their development to the point where they start killing and maiming people," accounting for what are otherwise inexplicable acts of violence (Pascoe; Meeks 54). On a public level, as family skeletons are brought to light, the whole system of masculine authority is interrogated. Incorporating, if in "hyperbolised" and "exaggerated" form (Ellroy, in Johnston 16), actual events in the history of '50s L.A. - the investigations of the LAPD, the Red Scare, the production of Hollywood films and scandal sheets, the beginning of the California freeway system, the creation of a lightly disguised Disneyland - Ellroy builds up his picture of a society founded on greed, duplicity and viciousness. It is the dark side of the American dream of prosperity: ail success is tainted, and the postwar boom years are seen to be dominated by powerful men, both in private enterprise and institutions of authority, who have, metaphorically, mutilated their heirs. Criminality, corruption and guilt are part of even the most respectable of legacies.
This is, of course, an angle of vision influenced not just by the history of postwar Los Angeles but also by the popular literature and cinema of that time. The blurring of moral distinctions and anxiety projected in images of suppression and containment are familiar ingredients of film noir, and it is clear that Ellroy, like many other writers and filmmakers in recent decades, has found in the classic noir cycle the mood, themes and techniques appropriate to more recent decades. In "hommages" to noir, or "returns," both novels and films have reworked the motifs and stylistics of either the "hardboiled" thrillers or their cinematic counterparts-films like Taxi Driver and Chinatown (a film strikingly close to some of the main themes of Ellroy's novels); direct or indirect remakes (DOA, Farewell, My Lovely, Body Heat, No Way Out); adaptations of, for example, Jim Thompson novels (The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet); the novels of Robert B. Parker, Joseph Hansen or Ellroy himself, Ellroy says that he thinks of the '80s and '90s as an ideal time for his type of fiction because "Noir (of the ' 40s and ' 50s) was a popular form that expressed futility in a time of great boosterism."4 Quick to distinguish himself from certain types of crime writing, especially that which is morally centered on a hero of lonely integrity, he sees Chandler as overrated and identifies himself instead with the work of Dashiell Hammett, whose bleak endings, compromised heroes and skeptical view of American life have strong affinities with Ellroy's own appropriation of noir conventions: "I think I picked up the Hammett world view. . . Increasingly, I have focused on the bad men of history, on the leg-breakers, and that in essence is what the Continental Op was all about. . . It's a dark view" (qtd. in Silet 240).
There has, of course, been considerable debate about whether film noir can actually be seen as constituting a critique of postwar America: that is, over whether, say, the characteristic stylistic extravagance and disorientations are in themselves subversive and disruptive. It can be viewed, paradoxically, both as a product or expression of its period and as transgressive - as having a "seductive power" which cannot easily be recuperated, thus generating "a resistance to the imperatives of history" (Krutnik 20-21 and 71). In Ellroy's fiction, noir's negative images of American society are much more fully and unambiguously articulated, Though he often, as he says, roots for the psychopath, we are left in little doubt about his view of the excesses of material ambition and the abuse of power, the corruption of establishment figures, unrestrained male violence and grotesque perversions of the American dream of success. By combining noir themes and techniques with a detailed recreation of the postwar decades, Ellroy brings to the fore the public dimensions of the genre.
Problems of law are obviously integral to the crime novel, and in the L.A. Quartet these problems are given substance by the focus on specific institutions of law enforcement. Ellroy describes himself as a firm believer in law and order, but at the same time professes himself deeply ambivalent about the "slide area" of legalized brutality. Even if, in the' 40s and' 50s, "the cop world of those preMiranda days" was "much more untoward" and less accountable, he creates out of the materials of the time a far more generalised portrait of the horror of legalized, institutionalized lawlessness.6 Both the vertiginous complexity of Ellroy's plots and his compromised protagonists serve to increase our involvement in the morass of police politics. In place of the Chandler-style private-eye icon hero, he chooses as his compulsive investigators men working either for the LAPD or the Sheriff's Department. Although they may become increasingly isolated during the course of their investigations, their identities remain very much bound up with their official roles. This is partly, Ellroy suggests, a matter of verisimilitude - "the last time a private eye investigated a murder was never" (qtd. in Unsworth 32). But it also serves to create a picture of the inescapable power of institutionalized corruption. The motive is anti-romantic representation rather than crusading zeal: he is not, he says, pushing for social change, but is detennined to confront his readers with uncomfortable realities.
In White Jazz, for example, he casts as his first-person narrator a police lieutenant, Dave Klein, whose police work is informed by his training as an attorney but, even more important, by his experience as a slum landlord, bagman, and mob hitman, and who is inextricably involved in the power struggles between senior officers in the LAPD. Ellroy wanted, by his own account, "a real, repressed, violent, right-wing, though not particularly right-wing ideologically, L.A. cop. I wanted a man who is obsessed with order because he has no order in his own life. . . a man with more than his share of hypocrisy, full of ambiguities and contradiction."7 Klein's different roles involve him (in terms of the novel's structure) in complicated parallel plots, as well as creating traumatic uncertainty about whether any resolution is possible. There is always a sense of possession by forces beyond individual control, of men assimilated to utterly dishonest, brutal patterns of existence. As Klein's narrative reaches its conclusion, his mind races through the crimes in which he is implicated: "Killings, beatings, bribes, payoffs, kickbacks, shakedowns. Rent coercion, music jobs, strikebreaker work. Lies, intimidation, vows trashed, oaths broken, duties scorned. Thievery, duplicity, greed, lies, killings, beatings. . ." (WJ 331). Written in what Ellroy calls a "paranoid. . . stream-of-consciousness style that made the book read like a fever dream" (Silet 242), Klein's narrative creates an overwhelming sense of an underworld of crime, vice and murder penetrating at all levels an apparently respectable world of legal order and acceptable procedure. Film noir criticism usefully distinguishes between the seeker-hero (calm, authoritative, incorruptible and destined to emerge safely from danger) and the victim-hero of darker noir, the neurotic personality who is lost and confused in a "world out of joint," completely lacking the kind of moral certainty that conventionally accompanies heroism. Klein, we find, is not just the victim-hero but the perpetrator-hero, separated from the real villains of the piece primarily by the fact that we share his struggle to understand the crimes committed. Although he is psychopathically unstable, the paranoia he gives voice to is structural rather than clinical; it cannot be dismissed as purely subjective, given that "they" really are out to get him, and the multiple betrayals and deceptions in which he is involved, the murderous battles for profit and for political control of the city, are all part of a system that is as corrupt as it is inescapable. In most crime fiction and melodrama, Ellroy says,
the hero bucks the system and wins - I think if you were to calculate the themes in eighteen out of twenty of the top-grossing movies of all time, that's what you'd get - but we know that doesn't happen. The system wins. The system grinds you to dust. And my hero bas to be aware of this, and that whatever victories he gets will be compromised, brutally finite, and fraught with ambiguities. (Clark 90)
This "system" - what Ellroy himself describes as "the corrupt, always right-wing system"8 - together with the urban environment of which it is a part, is seen by Ellroy as a product of individual depravity. The city sometimes emerges in noir writing as an autonomous, malevolent force, acting to destroy the individual: the iconography of the city as villain is particularly strong, for example, in Woolrich's Deadline at Dawn and Hammett's Red Harvest. In Ellroy's novels, on the other hand what we focus on is the human process of constructing the urban milieu-nascent capitalism, with immigrant entrepreneurs building the foundations of a modern city. The development of land in the growing city is an act of possession carried out at considerable human cost. Part of the detailed historical fabric of the L.A. Quartet is an elaborate representation of Los Angeles in the process of construction. As in much film noir, this is an environment dominated by avarice and fraudulence. The rise of big business is figured as the construction of immorally shoddy housing, with success and criminality going hand in hand. The first of the novels in the L.A. Quartet, The Black Dahlia, reveals the "hidden history" of the family of Emmett Sprague, who "built half of Hollywood and Long Beach, and what he didn't build he bought" (BD 150). Both narratively and symbolically, the past event that marks the true beginning of the story is Emmett's arrival in America and his progress from rags to riches-living rough, borrowing money and erecting cheap houses, "made out of the worst possible material," because "Emmett was a bit of a crook" (BD 290). With the proceeds, he provides for himself "twenty-two rooms. . . a dream house built from immigrant ambition" (BD 307). Much of the novel's intricate plot is a working out of the links between this monument to dynamic capitalism and the disintegrating housing developments that have made Sprague's fortune. In terms of plot resolution, Sprague's derelict houses play an important role, one of his "abandoneds" having been the scene of the crime, the house in which Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, is murdered. Metaphorically, these vacant, collapsing houses serve to enmesh public and private misconduct, giving actual historical substance to the motif of false foundations-of lives built on "a foundation of lies" (BD 361).
Ellroy's most characteristic method of representing the hidden guilt at the core of the American dream is his elaboration of the psychopathology of criminal acts. True to the example of noir, he is preoccupied with psychological breakdown and perverse, excessive sexuality, using "pop Freudianism" to create a vision of social disorder. His fascination with the psychopathology of violent crime is obviously in part to do with the exorcism of personal demons, an obsessive return to the unsolved murder of his mother when he was ten years old. Even more than in film noir, however, it is evident that a concentration on the psychological states of both villains and protagonists provides a means of exploring America's postwar malaise.
And, if you were to ask me who killed John Kennedy, I would say his father. Because it was Bobby Kennedy's vendetta against organised crime that more than anything else got his brother killed. . . And I think Bobby persecuted the Mob with the fervour that he did because he wanted to go after the men who morally most resembled his father. (Unsworth 32)
The male-centered stories of the classic noir cycle are characteristically concerned with the primacy of male identity, psychic stability and male inheritance, with "the male's succession to a tradition of cultural supremacy" and "correct manhood" achieved by identification with "the Law of the Father" (Krutnik 75-80). Ellroy himself emphasizes that the thriller is an essentially male genre: "At bottom, for me, it's about male angst. Men perpetrate it, and men read it."10 In the L.A. Quartet, the most disturbing criminal impulses are those generated within a regime of masculine political and economic power, with the course of events determined by powerful figures of male authority whose sins are appallingly visited on their children. The fate of the heirs of Emmett Sprague, Reynolds Loftis, Raymond Dieterling, J. C. Kafesjian and Phillip Herrick illuminates the failures of the whole legitimizing framework of masculine authority. In deviant families, we repeatedly see the impairment of masculine identity, and potent, controlled masculinity sustained only by repression and deceit. Except in The Black Dahlia (where the "heir" is female), there are, within each family, polarized male figures, the older of whom characteristically imposes upon the weaker male a construction of identity which violates and damages him. This pattern is often echoed in the father-son relationships of the novels' protagonists-most importantly in the behavior of Preston Exley, but also, for example, in the influence of Bucky Bleichert's father, a one-time member of the German-American Bund who is held responsible both for the blinding of Bucky's mother and for Bucky's own earliest betrayals (BD 10-11 and 34-35) and in the brutality of Mal Considine's father, a "first-string Calvinist" who terrorises his sons into deviousness and deceit (BN 254). We see, then, both criminal and "upright" variants of the misuse of male power, with the private hanns done mirroring the potential for public perversion of "the Law of the Father'. In commenting on one of his earlier characters, Lloyd Hopkins in Blood on the Moon, Ellroy says,
He is really an emotional adolescent, which is something that I see in a lot of my male characters. I think men who engage in violence are men that have never grown up. As enamoured as I am with the male romance I think a lot of it is just preposterous, bullshit. It has driven the world right to the edge of extinction.11
In all four novels of the L.A. Quartet, the male romance is not just the source of extreme physical violence but also inflicts the kind of psychological harm that ensures a continuity of shameful responsibility-destructiveness that goes "on and on," with damaged sons wreaking revenge, seeking atonement or trying to demonstrate that they are tough enough to find favor with all-powerful fathers. The most culpable figures in El1roy's novels are all in some sense "city fathers"-the constructors of cities, businessmen. Hollywood icons and institutionalized myth-makers who have created the actual and the metaphoric landscape of postwar Los Angeles.
In The Black Dahlia, the two contrasted fathers, entrepreneur and dreamer, are emblematic of the opposing sides of the American character. On the one hand, there is, as we have seen, "the Emmett Sprague, confrere of Mack Sennett in the Hollywood salad days," making his money from "gangster kickbacks and worse" and building houses out of the refuse of Hollywood-rotten lumber and abandoned movie facades bought cheaply from Sennett (BD 210 and 166); on the other hand, there is Sprague's "dreamer friend," Georgie Tilden, with his "odd talents" and his determination to come to California because he wanted to work in the silent movies (BD 160-61). As the plot unravels, it is the revelation of deeper connections between these two that explains the family tragedy and the fate of the dream at the bands of the "hardcase" businessman who "worships toughness" (BD 166-67). Mutilated by Sprague (when be discovers that Georgie is Madeleine's real father), Georgie comes to stand for the dream "defaced" by entrepreneur. In worldly terms, after his disfigurement, he becomes a "never was," but however resolutely Sprague tries to enforce this non-existence, his "former stooge" lingers disturbingly as a repository of dark secrets. Just as his houses are constructed from the discarded lumber of Hollywood sets, so his own life has been built at the expense of a "wastrel nickelodeon artiste" (BD 162, 210, 367).
Like The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential is at least in part structured around contrasting fathers, each associated in his own way with the development (commercial, cultural and political) of Los Angeles. Raymond Dieterling and Preston Exley are highly respected pillars of the community, but still, as in The Black Dahlia, emblematic of opposing facets of American life and dreaming their own versions of the American dream. Dieterling says to Edmund Exley, "Your father, Pierce and I were dreamers. Pierce's dreams were twisted, mine were kind and good. Your father's dreams were ruthless - as I suspect yours are" (LAC 465). The third "father figure" here is a "crazy sugar daddy-o," Pierce Patchett, a powerful and wealthy money-lender "with L.A. roots going back thirty years" (LAC 342). Bankrolling movies, real estate and contracting deals, Patchett is the embodiment of an underlying selfishness and ambition, an utterly amoral force infecting the dreams of both the builder and the creative dreamer. The effect on the next generation is to produce (as in The Big Nowhere) a darkly parodic version of American family life: Dieterling's deeply disturbed son joins with a psychopath called Atherton to become a perfectly matched homicidal couple, who out of their sexual obsessions "spawned the idea of creating children to their own specifications"--not by raising the perfect family but by "killing and building hybrid children" (LAC 46667).
In contrast to Dieterling, fantasist of a lost Eden, Preston Exley speaks for the hard-man thriller ethos of absolute justice and tough, ruthless manliness, qualities he regards as essential not only to the work of law enforcement but also to his commercial and political ambitions. In the early pages of the novel, we see him probing his son's hardness, testing his willingness to be unprincipled in the service of "absolute justice"-to plant evidence, shoot armed robbers, beat confessions out of suspects, rig evidence (LAC 20). The Atherton murder case is his "glory case," something he wants to keep "complete, sealed off" in his mind (LAC 96). Ironically, he is always reminding his son to remember the case, using it to acquaint Edmund with "the brutality of crimes tbat require absolute justice" (LAC 47). But he has wrongly solved it, and when Dieterling's son murders again, the case can no longer be perceived as a single, aberrant instance of evil, now safely contained in the past but must instead be recognized as a series of interconnected wrongs, the effects of which continue to multiply. The Atherton case returns to Preston Exley like a ghost from the past, a concealed relationship (between him and Dieterling) and an unrecognized crime surfacing with deadly results: poised to run for governor, he is appalled by the thought that it will be "resurrected in print" in order to explain the crimes of the present (LAC 378). The impossibility of containing the ramifications of these bad acts is most apparent in the career of Edmund Exley, who from the outset has seen himself as having a familial obligation to fulfill the American dream of success. In the end, his inheritance brings him wealth, power and an overwhelming burden of guilt. "Obsessively beholden to his father," and inheriting his $17-million financial estate, he at the same time recognizes how thoroughly his "unbudging, unyielding, unflinching, intractable rectitude" has been under mined, the family home now perceived as "filthy-bad money bought and paid for," and his father damned "for the bad things you made me" (LAC 407 and 470-71).
The central theme of White Jazz is even more explicitly to do with political power, and with wealth as a means to such power. Edmund Exley's increasingly political and deeply compromised role seems firmly entrenched: he "runs things" (WJ 41), and he has, by the final pages of the L.A. Quartet, emerged as one of the only relatively unscathed figures. However far he has jeopardized his inner integrity, he is still intact (physically and in terms of his reputation) and is bound for prominent positions of institutional power: "Chief of Detectives, Chief of Police, Congressman, Lieutenant Goyernor, current gubernatorial candidate" (WJ 358-59). Exley's ambitions are juxtaposed with those of another behind-the-scenes embodiment of male power, the sadistic and unscrupulous Dudley Smith. Politically "expedient, smart," Exley publicly admires and privately seeks the destruction of Smith, who is, in a sinister sense, the spiritual father of the LAPD (everyone on the forces is "Lad" to him, and he exercises a pervasive influence throughout the L.A. Quartet). Although he makes only brief appearances, Smith is a dominating presence, the driving force behind much police corruption. He pursues objectives which are a more malevolent version of the ambitions of Preston and Edmund Exley, competing with Exley, for example, for the position of chief of detectives, but at the same time aiming to take control of the L.A. rackets:
"Give me your take on Dudley Smith.""He's brilliant and obsessed with order. He's cruel. It's occurred to mea few times that he's capable of anything.""Beyond your wildest imaginings." (WJ 278-79)
Smith is the "unnamed bad guy" (LAC 423) behind many of the crimes committed; ultimately brought down by Exley, he is also a dark double whom Exley increasingly comes to resemble: "In a strange sense he is Dudley Smith. Dudley Smith is smarter than anybody; Ed Exley is almost as smart as Dudley Smith" (Kellennan 29). As Klein tells Exley in White Jazz, "I know it must get you to look in the mirror and see Dudley" (WJ 280).
The punishments inflicted on the Kafesjians and Herrlcks are, as the psychopath himself says, "like symbolism" (WJ 328) -blinding, castration and other mutilations are a bloody declaration of what the murderer suffered in childhood as the indirect consequence of the corruption of two families on the make. The L.A. Quartet presents a succession of such symbolic disfigurements and mutilations. What one critic calls Ellroy's tendency to "hack cartoonery, horrorcomic stuff' (Williams 89) is there for its obvious shock value, but this "symbolic destruction" (WJ 228) also functions as the excessive language of those dispossessed by the masculine power structure. The male ethos of the thriller world can be seen as a kind of "defensive solidification": strength is associated with solidity and firmly defined boundaries, both bodily and social. Opposition to this confidently constituted facade can be signified by fragmentation, the violation of boundaries and the assault on bodily integrity (Cameron 77-78). The grand guignol horror of Ellroy's narratives repeatedly embodies (in a rather literal sense) the protest of those silenced by the dominant order. Throughout the L.A. Quartet, mutilations function as stories of earlier traumas. In The Black Dahlia this is given a literary gloss by a Victor Hugo novel found at the scene of the crime - The Man Who Laughs, in which a group of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spaniards kidnap and torture children, mutilating them and then selling them to the aristocracy to be used as court jesters (BD 363). For the murderer, as in fact for the many others in the city who come forward to confess to the crime, the macabre death of the Black Dahlia is a declaration of personal suffering: "The longer I listened the more they talked about themselves, interweaving their sad tales with the story of the Black Dahlia" (BD 147). The "above-garage flop" where the most gruesome of the murders in The Big Nowhere occur is entirely written over with the blood of the victims, and the murders themselves are recognized by the investigating detective as re-enactments. The son of Loftis is driven by "impacted rage" almost literally to consume the man who has used him to feed his fantasies: "Coleman wrapped his arms around Daddy like an animal starved for food and went for his throat" (BN 457 and 438). All the mutilations, "symbolic of him trying to get his past straight in his mind," are inflicted by his "alter ego" the wolverine. In the (perhaps overly explicit) psychiatrist's explanation, "He strangled him and hacked him and ate him and emasculated him like Daddy and all the others had tried to do to him" (BN 226, 330 and 462). Even more stylized and explicit, the psychopathic murders of L.A. Confidential acquire the status of perverted artistry created to express the psychological damage sustained by the murderer. A gruesome counterpart to the animated films of Raymond Dieterling, the murders are transmuted into pornographic art work, "artful desecrations" with "embossed red streaming from disembodied limbs" (LAC 440 and 344).
The motif of counter-narratives is important to all four novels of the L.A. Quartet. In contemplating twentieth-century history, Ellroy says, he has always had "a persistent sense of individual stories trying to get out."12 In the Quartet, alongside the "writing in blood" of the psychopath, there are other graphic declarations of hidden truths, such as Ramona Sprague's "little pageants," in which, using the neighbor's children as extras, she reenacts and films "episodes out of Mr. Sprague's past that he would rather forget," speaking "obliquely of his greed and cowardice" (BD 163 and 368). The dominance of Hollywood storytelling spurs the disaffected to narrative acts of their own, although it often also means that characters can only conceive of themselves in terms of the conventional roles of the cinema. The Black Dahlia, for example, has sought to create herself in a Hollywood image; although she lacks the talent to succeed in the movie business, what she does possess is a "storage gift" which enables her to be "whoever she was with" (BD 126). The endless lies she tells are all assimilations of her own life to Hollywood stories: "She told everybody nine thousand lies about being married to nine thousand different war heroes" (BD 123). Ironically, stardom only comes to her after she has been murdered, when every turn of the plot brings "another installment of The Black Dahlia Show" and others (Madeleine Sprague, Bucky Bleichert, Lee Blanchard) find that their own fantasies are inextricably bound up with her: her romantic love stories turn out in the end to be' a noir film from which there is "no escape" (BD 129 and 132). The standardized looks and stories of American cinema are shadowed by the dark mockery of death and perversion. Plastic surgery, as performed by the Lux clinic, is used (The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential) both to conceal ghastly secrets and to create desirable faces in the Hollywood mold; it also, however, produces monsters. Lux himself, transforming identities and severing real historical memory, is the embodiment of Hollywood: "I'm Hollywood, Buzz. Easy come, easy go, and it's already a dim memory" (BN 428). Hollywood is taken by Ellroy to be synonymous with all of the lies that sustain a bogus sense of national identity. The most haunting of the counternarratives is that of the damaged son in The Big Nowhere, who, by substituting silence for falsehood, conveys a sense of how difficult it is to express things that have been censored in the interests of an agreeable public image: "Coleman was fighting his urges inchoately, with music. He was working on a long solo piece filled with eerie silences to signify lies and duplicities. . . He wanted to call his composition 'The Big Nowhere'" (BN 461).
L.A. Confidential, as we have seen, opens with Preston Exley securing the contract to build the freeway system that will join Hollywood to downtown Los Angeles. This symbolic construction suggests the manifold links between Ellroy's representative city and the Hollywood dream factory. His novels recurrently explore the bizarre connections and the intractable tensions between urban realities and the comforting, familiar patterns of Hollywood narrative-a union of myth-making and metropolitan life which produces, on the one hand, "Hollywood Babylon" (in Ellroy's words, "as degenerate as you can get"l3) and, on the other, the "City of Dreams." Historically, it can be argued that the American national experience, magnified and distorted, is reflected in the history and the shared symbolic attachments of southern California: "Flagrant self-seeking and corruption have coexisted with intense assertions of moral purity since the early migrations to the south"; chroniclers of Los Angeles have often been seen to "caricature American life itself," since both hopes and disillusionment are exaggerated in a city where people's restlessness has brought them "face to face with the American dream." As one historian of California writes, "It is as if a Frankenstein monster had been created by traditional American values, transformed by the gilded modernity of Los Angeles itself' (Rogin 154-57 and 18589). With the dynamism of the dream "out of hand," people turn for scapegoats to alien influences, to be combated by native heroes, who are needed
to serve as moral exemplars for a society increasingly undercut by the pervasive influence of Communism, crime, liberalism and general moral turpitude. A morally upright exemplar was needed. . . Captain Edmund J. Exley, war hero and hero of the Nite Owl murder case, was that man. (LAC 273)
In all four novels of the L.A. Quartet, such local ironies have wider resonance. Here, this is evident in the desperate turn to a man-a hero-impersonator-in the hope that he will bring a cure, when in reality he is a carrier of the disease. The ironic pattern is even stronger at the end of L.A. Confidential, where we see the persistence of a kind of pious myth-making that would be impossible if the truth were admitted: "Very simply, these two men symbolized the fulfillment of a vision - Los Angeles as a place of enchantment and high-quality everyday life. More than anyone else, Raymond Dieterling and Preston Exley personified the grand and good dreams that have built this city" (LAC 476). After the novel's accumulated horrors, this posthumous newspaper tribute to guilt-ridden founding fathers is a grimly satiric comment on the robustness of the mythocizing impulse. It is given weight by the sheer density of Ellroy's historical reconstruction and by the sense we always have that he is himself a participant rather than a detached satiric observer. As he says in interview, he writes about the failures of the male romance as an insider and increasingly feels that he has become "unsentimental" about "all these preposterous, testosterone-fueled male power games - I hope it's starting to come across."14
Cameron, Ian, ed. The Movie Book of Film Noir. London: Studio Vista, 1992.
Cash, William. "Mean Streets and Dark Hearts." Telegraph Magazine 14 Jan. 1995: 30-35.
Clark, David. "James Ellroy." Gallery Feb. 1990: 90.
Dollar, Steve. "L.A. Confidential: A Review." The Atlanta Constitution 3 June 1990.
Ellroy, James. American Tabloid. London: Arrow, 1995.
-. Dick Contino's Blues and Other Stories (1994). London: Arrow, 1994 [DCB] .
-. L.A. Confidential (1990). London: Arrow, 1994. [LAC]
-. The Big Nowhere (1988). London: Arrow, 1994. [BN]
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