White Jazz by James Ellroy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This conclusion to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet is just as wholesome and uplifting as the previous three books with his usual cast of characters such as corrupt cops, gangsters, hustlers, blackmailers, shakedown artists, bag men, thieves, junkies, drug dealers, dog killers, whores, johns, pimps, peepers, perverts, panty sniffers, and politicians. Oh, and most of them are murders, racist, and/or incestuous as a bonus, and that includes the hero of the novel.
It's 1958 and LAPD Lieutenant Dave Klein is a busy guy. In addition to his police duties he’s also a lawyer, a slumlord, and he does the occasional contract murder for hire. Klein gets assigned to investigate a weird break-in and vandalism at the home of a police sanctioned drug dealer, but with an ambitious US Attorney sniffing around the LAPD trying to build a corruption case it seems a bad time to be drawing attention to that particular rotten apple. Klein also takes a side gig from Howard Hughes investigating an actress who left him to star in a B-horror movie about communist space vampires, and he’d love to start chasing down a gang who pulled off a daring robbery of a fortune in furs to get a piece of their action. However, Klein soon finds himself in the middle of a living nightmare which pull his loyalties in multiple directions, and as the crimes pile up it’ll take a miracle to keep him from ending up in jail or the morgue.
The last two novels of the L.A. Quartet each used a trio of bad men doing bad things as their main characters, and Ellroy very consciously breaks the format here by making Dave Klein the solo lead and a first person narrator. This seems kind of like a call back to the structure of Black Dahlia and gives the conclusion a more intimate and personal feel, but it also seems like it doesn’t quite fit. As usual when things really start going off the rails Ellroy has his lead running around like a maniac both committing and investigating crimes while constantly making and betraying alliances that further his own agenda for the moment. When you have three characters doing this they can share the load and have them in various levels of trouble. By having only Klein to put in the soup it really stretches credibility too far to think that he wouldn’t have been arrested or killed about halfway through the book, and it certainly doesn’t seem like anyone would deal with him after the third or fourth time he’s double-crossed them.
Ellroy also advanced the clipped sentence fragment/stream of consciousness style he’d been building to new levels, and in fact, he probably pushed it too far in this one. L.A. Confidential has a flow to it that works whereas White Jazz too often veers into near gibberish. It’s a problem that shows up in other Ellroy novels, too. When he’s got this style on a leash he can really take it for a walk, but when it gets away from him it runs wild and devolves into near self-parody.
Probably my biggest disappointment with this is that it just doesn’t seem to deliver on the promise of the ending that L.A. Confidential pointed towards. That built to where it felt like the final book had to be an all-out war between two of the characters left standing. By bringing in a new character with the LAC angles only coming into play late in the game it doesn’t have the epic climax to the entire story I was hoping for.
It’s still a solid Ellroy novel, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the potential of what came before.
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