Like pouring a little gas in the carburetor of a car that won’t start, I said: “Michael Connelly? He’s written lots of books set in Los Angeles? A couple of movies? A TV series?”
“What does he write?”
“Mysteries,” I said.
“Oh. The mysteries are upstairs.”
The James Ellroy books are easy to find. They’re on the main floor in a section labeled “LA Writers,” next to the works of Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, and John Fante. Signed Ellroy books occasionally surface in the bookstore’s collectibles annex.
So why does Ellroy get to carry the badge of “Los Angeles writer” while Connelly is relegated to the bookstore’s mysteries/science fiction grotto, along with fellow Edgar Award winners Robert Crais, Naomi Hirahara, Jonathan Kellerman, Walter Mosley, and Joseph Wambaugh, all of whom write about Los Angeles and, except for Hirahara and Mosley, its larger-than-life police department? (Elmore Leonard’s fans have to look in both places, apparently because nobody is sure of his L.A. writer status.)
This is an especially pertinent question as Connelly’s new book, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, debuted in the United States on November 1, earning a bravo from Booklist and qualified praise from Kirkus. The novel is the 19th in the consistently well-wrought saga of LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, currently working as a private detective and volunteering with the budget-depleted San Fernando Police Department, after being forced into retirement at the end of The Burning Room (2014) and filing a lawsuit against the department in The Crossing (2015).
In contrast, Ellroy’s last novel, Perfidia (2014), drew no more than mixed reviews. In The New York Times, Dennis Lehane offered an extended analysis of Ellroy’s career and the book, which begins a proposed Second L.A. Quartet, saying that Perfidia was written in a “jumpy, feverish and anarchic” style, and deeming the book “erratic.” While Jonathan Shapiro, writing in these pages, called it “not the best, just good enough.” Scott Timberg in the Los Angeles Times declared, with some ambivalence: “‘Perfidia’ is 700 pages of ultra-violent, often frenetic police procedural, macho swagger, anti-Semitic broadcasts and racist rampage.” The New York Review of Books passed on the novel altogether. Time might be leaving Ellroy behind. His most recent nonfiction book, LAPD ’53, published in 2015, the year he received the Edgar Awards’s Grand Master title, concludes with the thought: “Where’s [former LAPD Chief] William H. Parker now that we really need him?” That sentiment seems particularly tone-deaf in the days of Black Lives Matter.
As Philip Marlowe might ask: Why am I looking for Michael Connelly books?
Since I retired in December after 27 years at the Los Angeles Times, ending 34 years in daily journalism, I have been catching up on decades of neglected reading. Many of my colleagues in the news business are voracious readers, but after a busy shift on the Times copy desk, the last thing I wanted to do was go home and read more L.A. crime, unless it related to my lengthy book project on the Black Dahlia.
I started with the collected works of Chandler, scrounged from the Times book department’s discards — bins of castoff review copies that are surely a soul-crushing sight for the struggling author.
Like Connelly, I was in love with Chandler when I was in my 20s, but between then and now, my exposure was limited to viewing the films based on his novels. Rereading Chandler for the first time in 40 years was like having lunch with an ex-girlfriend and feeling the old chemistry, but also noticing all her annoying habits and understanding why the relationship was doomed. The flawless descriptions and sharp dialogue that had been etched in my mind were there, along with the extraneous characters, strange plot turns, and other problems that I had forgotten and that had been untangled or eliminated by screenwriters.
And so I began a self-imposed project to read as many mysteries set in Los Angeles as I could find. From there, it was an easy hop to Connelly and Ellroy. My friends in law enforcement say Connelly is their favorite writer; one LAPD sergeant confided that he was sure Connelly has someone inside the department because he portrays its inner workings so precisely.
Part of what piqued my curiosity is that I know both of these writers. I worked with Connelly at the Times, along with his fellow mystery authors Miles Corwin and Denise Hamilton, and we’re amiable acquaintances. I was friends with Ellroy for about five years until he drifted away, as he does with everybody. He disappointed me in endorsing Black Dahlia Avenger author Steve Hodel’s theory on the case, after initially repudiating it, but we remain cordial, and when I last saw him, he broke the ice by joking: “Nobody mention Steve Hodel.” Retired LAPD cold case detective Rick Jackson, another former Ellroy intimate who may be the godfather to L.A. crime writers, explained with a shrug: “James is James.”
Ellroy and Connelly, too, are on friendly terms. Despite Ellroy’s typical bravado (he asked Nathaniel Rich in 2009: “I’m the greatest crime writer ever, right? Is there anyone better than me?”) he is only competitive with himself. And Connelly, a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, has an admirable reputation for encouraging other writers. Miles Corwin, in the acknowledgments to his Midnight Alley (2012), calls Connelly “the ultimate mensch.”
Still, the disparity between the two is more than a shelving issue at a bookstore. If you go to a bookstore cashier with a stack of Connelly novels, you may get a knowing nod. If you go to the same cashier with a stack of Ellroy novels you will get a wary look — and they may call security.
Mysteries, whether foreign or domestic, can be many things: social commentary, an inside look at police procedures, or an excursion into an obscure culture, be it that of golf caddies, Japanese gardeners, or Jewish surfers. But whatever else they are, mysteries must be a magic trick. In the denouement, the rabbit must be pulled out of a hat — and in the era of the double-barreled mystery story, the rabbit is expected to pop out of a hat and find a nickel behind the reader’s ear.
Murder (preferably several) is almost always involved, at least for the official gendarmes; the private operatives are more likely to be looking for something, usually a missing person (Crystal Kingsley in Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake) or a valuable object (the Brasher Doubloon in The High Window), though bodies are still likely to pile up along the way. The only L.A. mystery novel I can think of in which the detective is supposed to get rid of someone — not lethally — is Ross Macdonald’s The Barbarous Coast.
The American mystery novel has certain formulas and stock characters that have become familiar, if not overexposed, in what Connelly calls the “by the numbers detective story.” And within this broader genre, we have the subgenre of the Los Angeles mystery novel, which almost always involves the LAPD or a refugee from law enforcement who has set up private practice. Like an L.A. version of the board game Clue with local settings, the stories reveal the killer as Miss Scarlet at the Hollywood Sign with a Luger or Colonel Mustard in the Roosevelt Hotel with a silk stocking. And with many writers using the plot of an inside job by a rogue cop, the killer is often Detective Glock in Echo Park with a shotgun.
It is in this fictional L.A. landscape that we find some of the key differences between Connelly and Ellroy.
Connelly writes in the present or immediate past, deftly slipping in lessons on Los Angeles history along the way. Connelly does his homework and employs researchers, so it is rare to find a mistake in one of his novels, though in Lost Light (2003) he says the Los Angeles Central Library is at “Flower and Figueroa” (actually Flower and Fifth) and mixes up the 2nd and 3rd Street tunnels.
Ellroy looks in the cloudy rearview mirror at a distant and darkly imagined Los Angeles — revisiting Chandler’s era, and using imagined facts, with disinterest if not utter disdain for accuracy. It’s no trick for someone grounded in Los Angeles history to find huge errors in Ellroy’s novels. He is hopelessly lost in even the basics of local government, having the Los Angeles City Council appoint an acting Los Angeles County District Attorney in White Jazz (1992). Granted, novels aren’t supposed to be documentaries, but that is a historian’s spit take.
In The Big Nowhere (1988), he places the Los Angeles County morgue in “the bottom floor of a warehouse on Alameda just south of Chinatown.” Compounding his mistake, Ellroy describes separate facilities for bodies found in the city of Los Angeles and the unincorporated county, each with its own staff and equipment, a division rigidly enforced because of a city edict. Does it matter that in reality the morgue had a single facility and staff to handle all the bodies from throughout the county, and was in the Hall of Justice until it moved to its current location in 1972? Not in Ellroy’s mythical Los Angeles.
Consider the story of Chavez Ravine and the construction of Dodger Stadium as told by Connelly and Ellroy. Since 1974, when the movie Chinatown told the fictionalized version of bringing water to Los Angeles, the civic boondoggle has become a popular plot device, so Chavez Ravine and the Dodgers are a good way to assess these two writers.
In The Burning Room, Connelly gives Bosch a partner, Detective Lucia “Lucy” Soto, who boycotts Dodger games because her father’s family was “pushed out of Chavez Ravine in the forties.” Although he is a decade too early, Connelly spends a page accurately summarizing the complex story of Latinos who were moved from the area to make way for a public housing project that was later scrapped and later became the site of Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers come off much better in The Wrong Side of Goodbye, which is dedicated to Vin Scully, and Bosch’s partner, Detective Bella Lourdes, is a Dodgers fan.
The most common and oversimplified version of the Chavez Ravine story is that it was a bait and switch: the idea of demolishing homes and displacing poor Mexican Americans to make way for public housing was sold to the voters while officials secretly planned to lure the Dodgers from Brooklyn with an offer of the vacated land. This narrative by itself is problematic, but Ellroy goes further. In White Jazz, Los Angeles voters are given the option of openly evicting the poor Mexican residents of Chavez Ravine specifically to make way for Dodger Stadium. And that is way off the mark.
Chavez Ravine is only one of a dozen elements that Ellroy juggles in the novel. Time and again, he drops the ball. City of Los Angeles elections are nonpartisan, but Ellroy’s characters run for city council as Democrats and Republicans. In the 1957 race, Los Angeles held its primary in April and general election in May. But Ellroy sets White Jazz in 1958, when no council races were held, and places them in November.
In the fictional 1958 Los Angeles of White Jazz, voters are supposedly deciding whether — in the words of the mythical Hush-Hush Magazine — to “boot an egregiously entrenched enclave of impecunious, impoverished, impetuously machismo mangled Mexican-Americans from their sharecropper shingle shacks in that shady, smog-shrouded Shangri-La Chavez Ravine.” But 90 percent of the land in Chavez Ravine had already been acquired by 1952, according to news accounts. In June 1958, while the Dodgers were playing their first season at the Coliseum, voters approved Proposition B, a referendum on the city’s contract with the ball club that said nothing about evicting anyone.
Not in Ellroy’s fictional and openly racist Los Angeles: “[Morton] Diskant’s been riling the spooks up with Chavez Ravine, something like ‘Vote for me so your Mexican brothers won’t get evicted from their shantytown shacks to make room for a ruling-class ballpark.’”
Anyone who writes about Los Angeles does so in the shadow of Raymond Chandler. Kenneth Millar, who used the pen name Ross Macdonald, wrote, “Raymond Chandler was and remains a hard man to follow. He wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”
And this is where Connelly and Ellroy are poles apart, the north and south of the same magnet. In public appearances, Ellroy is the carnival barker at a grotesque sideshow and Connelly is the friendly, self-deprecating author who is clinical in discussing the nuts and bolts of his writing, like a reporter talking about how he got a legislator to go on the record about statehouse corruption.
In 1977, Connelly was an engineering student at the University of Florida when he saw Robert Altman’s screen adaptation of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973). “I bought all his novels, stopped going to class and just read them back to back to back,” Connelly told The Wall Street Journal, calling The Long Goodbye “probably the most important book I’ve read” because it made him want to be a writer. The opening of The Wrong Side of Goodbye intentionally echoes the beginning of The Big Sleep and Marlowe’s interview with old and frail General Sternwood.
Connelly fits happily into the post-Chandler school of L.A. mystery writers, though, unlike Chandler’s, his Bosch plots are crisp. He starts with a first line and a last line and improvises his way between the two, but when he’s done, there’s usually a clear organization: a main story and a secondary story, with Bosch’s relationship with his daughter and a bit of soap opera about his personal life used as ways to shift between the two narratives. Connelly has mastered the art of writing a page-turner and the average reader can finish one of his novels in a day — quite probably an afternoon.
After being fired in the crucible of daily journalism, Connelly writes in the clean, spare prose of a reporter, much like Tony Hillerman, another reporter turned mystery novelist. There seems to be minimal difference between his earlier and later novels, except that he switched from third person to first person in Lost Light and The Narrows (2004). He’s at his best in portraying the differences between the many male investigators and police officers who fill his novels. His female characters can be well drawn, but they are sometimes two dimensional with perfunctory backstories. One of the most fully dimensional female characters, though briefly seen, is Bosch’s daughter, Maddie.
Make no mistake about it: Connelly can be as dark as Ellroy. His novels deal with child abuse and the torture of murder victims. Unlike Ellroy, however, his darkness is never unrelieved. Without light, there can be no shadows, and there is always some sunlight in a Bosch novel. Ellroy is a completely different being.
Speaking to Rich for The Paris Review, he said:
Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, [Dashiell] Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed. Hammett was tremendously important to me.
Did Ellroy, of all people, call Chandler’s books “incoherent”? Yes, he did.
In Ellroy’s autobiographical My Dark Places (1996), which deals with his mother’s killing, he says that he graduated from high school in June 1962, but he told Rich that he flunked out in 11th grade. Either way, Ellroy is self-taught as a writer, an outsider artist with no training in perspective or color theory whose canvases are raw, powerful, highly individualistic, and deeply problematic.
Ellroy has had many influences, but none more powerful than Jack Webb’s The Badge (1958), an otherwise obscure book that was given to him several months after his mother’s murder and, hence, was carved into the deepest recesses of his brain. From drawing on the Club Mecca bombing in his first book to using LAPD chemist Ray Pinker (a character in the TV show Dragnet) in his most recent novel, the incidents, characters, and worldview of Jack Webb are hiding in plain sight throughout Ellroy’s novels.
The later Ellroy books are dark, dense, and bombastic, turning the reader’s head into a punching bag, yet he did not start by writing word salad with noir dressing. His debut, Brown’s Requiem (1981), begins solidly in the post-Chandler school, with a heavy dose of racial epithets, until it takes a dark, violent, and sexual turn in the second half.
Even The Black Dahlia (1987) fits into the post-Chandler school. But in his next book, The Big Nowhere, Ellroy began using a staccato minimalism, reducing a sentence to one or two words. Ellroy developed this style over the rest of the L.A. Quartet — L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz — until it evolved into the “word confetti” of the Underworld USA Trilogy: American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001), and Blood’s a Rover (2009).
In researching this piece, I spent a Sunday afternoon sitting with American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Perfidia, trying unsuccessfully to get started in any of them. Nobody is ever going to say that Ellroy’s books are page-turners. At least not in a good way. American Tabloid is factually ridiculous, and all the characters sound like Ellroy: a writer’s monotone of words dug from a thesaurus. Even J. Edgar Hoover and Robert F. Kennedy sound like James Ellroy. The Cold Six Thousand, Ellroy’s unsuccessful attempt to break out from genre fiction into mainstream literature, is pounding, long-form minimalism delivered with 12-ounce gloves: right cross, left cross, uppercut, right cross, left cross, uppercut. In Perfidia, Ellroy retreats to a slightly more accessible narrative, his pointillism kept somewhat in check. The book features all of Ellroy’s excesses — the factual errors, the eccentric style, the homogeneous voice (even Kay Lake’s diary sounds like Ellroy), the disorganization — and none of his strengths in storytelling.
Ellroy is 68 and, by his own account in My Dark Places and The Hilliker Curse (2010), it has been a very hard 68 years. I wonder, based on his last three novels, whether he will finish his proposed Second L.A. Quartet, especially in light of his first entry, Perfidia. He wrote the L.A. Quartet from 1987 to 1992, four books in five years. But there was an eight-year gap between The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover. So far there hasn’t been a word about whatever comes after Perfidia. And the clock is ticking.
Meanwhile, Connelly, 60, keeps writing — one book, and sometimes two, every year. He has gone on social media to reassure his readers that, contrary to what they might infer from the title of The Wrong Side of Goodbye, this is not the end of Harry Bosch. He foresees more Bosch novels and says he plans to take his character in a new direction.
Connelly says that Bosch looks into the abyss of humanity and makes sure he doesn’t slip in. For Ellroy, his characters have taken the plunge, and he has all too often gone with them. If you are unfamiliar with Connelly, if you are put off by the somewhat contrived name Hieronymus Bosch, or if you aren’t certain whether Connelly is an L.A. writer who tells us as much truth about the city as Ellroy and many other authors, The Wrong Side of Goodbye will convince you otherwise.
Larry Harnisch retired from the Los Angeles Times in 2015 after 27 years as a copyeditor, feature writer, columnist, and blogger. He is writing a book about the 1947 Black Dahlia case.