James Ellroy's LA Quartets: the stories so far

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 15:47

On 27 May the ‘demon dog of American literature’ joins us here at Southbank Centre to discuss his latest novel This Storm. This is the second novel from his latest LA Quartet series; a prequel to the original LA Quartet of The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz, that drew huge critical praise upon their late 1980s, early 1990s release, making Ellroy a household name. 

Ahead of the release of This Storm, we take a look back at the previous LA Quartet novels from the author described by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as ‘one of the great American writers of our time'.

LA Quartet

A series of four novels of crime-fiction, which often tie into real life events and characters, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet spans life in Los Angeles from the late 1940s through to the late 1950s, starting with The Black Dahlia.

 

The Black Dahlia (1987)

Though Ellroy’s literary career didn’t begin with The Black Dahlia – this was actually his seventh novel – it would be this novel that elevated him beyond the crime fiction cult following his early novels had established, to critical and wider acclaim. Nineteen years on from its release The Black Dahlia was adapted for the big screen, as a film starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank.

The books’ subject is the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947 Los Angeles. Short’s corpse was found mutilated and discarded in an empty residential lot, and the subsequent investigation would ultimately lead to a significant police corruption scandal. Ellroy’s novel blends facts and fiction – not least in solving the crime, where the original murder remains unsolved – as it follows the murder’s large-scale manhunt and Warrant Squad cops Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard. Caught up in the investigation, they tread the dark streets of postwar Hollywood, and the depths of their own psyches.

 

The issue of “Who were you?” was grossly outstripped by the question “Who killed you?” My novel The Black Dahlia attempts to redress that moral imbalance – even as it exploits [Elizabeth] Short’s death.
James Elroy, writing in The Guardian, on the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short that inspired The Black Dahlia.

 

The Big Nowhere (1988)

The second book of Ellroy’s original LA Quartet won the author the Prix Mystère Award in 1990. As with The Black Dahlia, Ellroy uses notorious crimes from 1940s Los Angeles to help set the scene, with the story taking place in the aftermath of the Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the Zoot Suit Riots that followed. 

The novel revolves around three central characters. Turner ‘Buzz’ Meeks is a disgraced former cop, now working for a millionaire and a gangster. LAPD lieutenant ‘Mal’ Considine tries to do the right thing in an environment that prefers a more underhand path whilst involved in a bitter child custody case. And LA Deputy Sheriff Danny Upshaw has two cases on his hand, the capture of a sex murderer, and a scheme to expose Hollywood’s communists.

 

LA Confidential (1990)

Set in the early 1950s, Ellroy’s LA Confidential takes its name from the popular scandal magazine of the time, Confidential - fictionalised as Hush-Hush in the book. Centring on three officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, following a massacre at the Nite Owl coffeeshop, the novel delves into organised crime, political corruption, pornography, prostitution, and murder.

The three LAPD officers – Edmund Exley, son of a legendary detective and informat on police officers in a brutality scandal; ‘Bud’ White, an intimidating enforcer, and Jack Vincennes, who moonlights as a police TV show’s technical advisor and tips off Hush-Hush on the latest scandals – must set aside their differences to unravel the conspiracy at the novel’s heart.

Arguably the most familiar of Ellroy’s LA Quartet titles, Curtis Hanson and Brian Hegeland’s adaptation of the novel into a hugely acclaimed film in 1997 saw the pair win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Kim Basinger’s portrayal of Lynn Bracken in the same movie earned the actor an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, for Best Supporting Actress.

 

LA Confidential, the movie, is the best thing that has ever happened to me that I had nothing to do with myself. It’s not as harsh as the novel, but my characters were done justice, as was the book.
Ellroy speaking to journalist Ian Johnston in 2001

 

White Jazz (1992)

‘James Ellroy's latest book White Jazz makes previous detective fiction read like Dr. Seuss,’ said the San Francisco Examiner’s reviewer upon the publication of the final book of Ellroy’s first LA Quartet in 1992. Featuring characters from previous stories, including some closure on the narratives featuring Edmund Exley and Dudley Smith (begun in LA Confidential, and The Big Nowhere respectively) White Jazz also introduces Pete Bondurant, who was to become a central character in Ellroy’s subsequent Underworld USA Trilogy.

Framed with a retrospective prologue and epilogue from the story’s protagonist Lieutenant David Klein, the novel follows this veteran LAPD policeman who also moonlights as a hitman for the mob. Trapped in a whirling conflicting world of justice, payback and crime, it’s not long before Klein’s conflicting associations close in on him, but can he find a way out?

 

The Second LA Quartet

A quarter of a century on from penning The Black Dahlia, Ellroy returned to LA, both physically and on the page, as he began his second LA Quartet. Jumping back to the 1940s and the middle (or beginning from a US point of view) of the Second World War; Ellroy weaves younger versions of characters from his previous Quartet, and the subsequent Underworld USA Trilogy into the series, which begins with Perfidia.

 

Perfidia (2014)

Operating to a much tighter time-frame than his previous novels, the events of Perfidia span just 23 days of December 1941. Against the backdrop of an apparent suicide of a Japanese-American family and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Perfidia is told through the perspectives of four characters of Ellroy’s previous Quartet; Hideo Ashida, a closet homosexual Japanese-American police chemist, and Kay Lake, both of whom we met older versions of in The Black Dahlia

There’s real-life head of LAPD from 1950 to 1966 William H. Parker, here a captain, who had appeared in La Confidential and White Jazz. Whilst the fourth protagonist is one of Ellroy’s favourite characters, the Machivellian Sgt. Dudley Smith (central in The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz). As Ellroy told journalist Ian Johnston in an interview for The Quietus at the time of the book’s release “Dudley Smith. Yeah, you want Dudley. Yeah, you’ve got to have Dudley. You’ve got to show people the bad side there with Dudley.”

 

Perfidia is a book for the whole family, if the name of your family is The Manson Family.
The infamous introduction to Perfidia, often used by James Ellroy at book reading events

 

This Storm (2019)

So to the latest instalment, the second book of this second quartet, set in January 1942 as Los Angeles continues to reel behind the shock of Pearl Harbour and members of the city’s Japanese community feel the backlash. When a body is found in a local park the cops tag it as a routine dead-man job when in actual fact it’s a warner of much greater chaos to come. 

Once again featuring familiar and loved characters from his other novels, including Hideo Ashida and the increasingly rogue Dudley Smith, This Storm has been described as Ellroy’s most audacious novel yet. That alone is quite a promise.

 


 

Back in London for the first time in five years, James Ellroy joined writer and editor Erica Wagner as Southbank Centre on 27 May to discuss his latest book This Storm.

 

The venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International, Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.

upcoming literature events