White Jazz by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”All I have is the will to remember. Time revoked/fever dreams--I wake up reaching, afraid I'll forget. Pictures keep the woman young.
L.A., fall 1958.
Newsprint: link the dots. Names, events--so brutal they beg to be connected. Years down--the story stays dispersed. The names are dead or too guilty to tell.
I'm old, afraid I'll forget:
I killed innocent men.
I betrayed sacred oaths.
I reaped profit from horror.
Fever--that time burning.
I want to go with the music-spin, fall with it.”
Lieutenant Dave Klein is in the middle of so many treacherous situations that the spread on whether he will live to see 1959 is carrying long odds. The only way he might live that long is if he is in jail awaiting trial, but even then powerful people, like the gangster Mickey Cohen or the Chief of Detectives Edmund Exley, better be convinced his lip will stay buttoned or something most sinister will happen to him before he ever gets a chance to flap his gums.
He’s got a lot to talk about.
”Killings, beatings, bribes, payoffs, kickbacks, shakedowns. Rent coercion, muscle jobs, strikebreaker work. Lies, intimidation, vows trashed, oaths broken, duties scorned. Thievery, duplicity, greed, lies, killings, beatings, bribes, payoffs, Meg--”
I’d like to tell you that Klein is an innocent, caught up in the machinations of a corrupt system, and that he is crusading to do the right thing, while trying to work the ends against the middle and the middle against both ends, but the truth of the matter is, he is as morally corrupt as the city he is paid to protect.
You need a witness tossed out a window? Call Klein.
You want a rival neutralized? Call Klein.
You need an illegal payoff dropped off? Call Klein.
Klein is a most resourceful young man just trying to make enough money to finish law school.
Some of you may have noticed the mention of Meg at the end of his list of sins. She is his business partner in a block of rentals. He is head over heels lustful in love with her. The problem is, incest is a sin, and my, my, my does Klein want to sin, sin, sin with his sister Meg.
So the trouble begins when Exley calls in Klein to investigate a burglary of a “sanctioned” drug dealer’s house. The guy’s name is Kafesjian, and his illegal activities are fronted by a string of dry cleaning stores. It doesn’t take long for Klein to realize that the story surrounding the Kafesjian burglary has a lot of sordid intrigue attached that goes well beyond the parameters of what he is supposed to be investigating. Exley, you remember Exley from L.A. Confidential, has made it clear that anything regarding Kafesjian is not to be touched. In fact, don’t even turn the rock over to start with.
As if Klein doesn’t have enough to do on his plate, Howard Hughes, yes that Hughes, calls him up and wants him to find a girl. It seems one of his actresses, Glenda Bledsoe, has gone off the reservation, and her contract with Hughes gives him exclusivity on what films she can work on, and he had her sign a morality clause as well. What? Hughes has someone sign a morality clause? Most actresses in Hollywood of the 1950s had to resign themselves to the fact that, sooner or later, they were going to be summoned to Hughes’s estate to service the beast.
Well, Klein doesn’t exactly follow Hughes’s instructions because he falls in lustful love with Glenda, which frankly proves a nice change of pace from the mooning he has been doing over his sister.
Feature:”Tall, lanky, honey blond. All legs, all chest--a grin said she never bought in. A little knock-kneed, big eyes, dark freckles. Pure something--maybe style, maybe juice.”
That “never bought in” part is what really drives Klein crazy. She isn’t an innocent, but yet there is something untameable about her that allows her to feel free to give Hughes the double middle finger salute. Klein doesn’t need to be made any more insane, but this woman is going to put another layer of care on the mound of unsavory deeds he can’t find a hole deep enough or big enough to bury.
Klein even gets caught up in the ongoing feud between ex-partners Edmund Exley and Dudley Smith. He has to play Exley and Smith and rely on their natural high levels of paranoia to keep them from realizing that Klein isn’t playing either one of them straight. One thing he knows is that Exley is the Wyatt Earp of Los Angeles. Whenever the gunfire has ended and the smear of accusations have been wiped off the wall, as the smoke clears, Exley will always be the last man standing.
Don’t bet against Exley.
The plot is, needless to say, convoluted with shotgun splattered sentences and what I can only describe as scat speak. James Ellroy takes us into Klein’s head, and what we get isn’t necessarily cohesive sentences, but broken pieces of thoughts, sometimes unfinished. Yet they convey the tortuous twists of guilt and fear that is wrapping around Klein’s brain tighter and tighter with every new revelation, with every new indiscretion.
I read quite a few hardboiled books a year. I don’t know why, but I always seem to get a hankering for them in the summertime when my blood runs hotter anyway. I have to say that there is no one working in the genre today, or maybe ever, who brings a more realistic view of the sordid underbelly of society. In fact, Ellroy makes other writers look almost naive about the extremes of human nature and the true motivations that make people into brutal, self-destructive, untrustworthy, shameful versions of themselves. If you were in trouble in Los Angeles in 1958, you didn’t call the LAPD because you might end up needing to be saved from them.
Hush hush, keep these SINsations on the QT.
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