James Ellroy'S 5 Best James Ellroy Books By James Ellroy

With a new volume due in his second LA Quartet, it’s a good time to read this justly self-declared master of fiction. But which book?

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‘I’m the greatest crime novelist who ever lived’ … James Ellroy, pictured in London in 2010. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

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‘I’m the greatest crime novelist who ever lived’ … James Ellroy, pictured in London in 2010. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

It’s a big month for James Ellroy. The self-described “demon dog of American crime fiction” has a new book on the way: This Storm, the second instalment in his second LA Quartet. Several of his older classics are due to be re-released by the Everyman’s Library, including the original LA Quartet and his follow-up Underworld Trilogy. In Ellroy’s own words, these new editions will canonise him in the “hellaciously hallowed halls of the Great American Novelist Brigade”. He’s also due to appear in London for the first time in five years. Finally, and best of all, we’re going to discuss him here on the reading group.

Ellroy has already been named as “the modern master of hard-boiled fiction” (the Guardian) and “one of the great American writers of our time” (LA Times). He himself says, modestly: “I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music.”

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How does he know? “I just know. There is a line from a wonderful Thomas Lux poem: ‘You’re alone and you know a few things.’ I just know that I am that good.”

Ellroy is always good for a quote. He’s also fascinating. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see that his dark, brutal fiction, in which nothing is certain and not everything is solvable, has been inspired by the fact that his mother was murdered when he was 10, in a crime that remains unsolved. “If I could abolish one concept from the parlance, it would be closure,” he has said. “My mother and I continue. The force of her – the pure, feminine, complex, ambiguous, bereaved force of her – drives me to this day.” Given that early trauma, it isn’t surprising to learn that he also went through a turbulent time as an adult, having problems with benzedrine inhalers and petty crime before reforming and starting to write, initially earning a living as a golf caddie as he did so.

He wrote six – as he (of course) describes them – “good” novels before his 1987 breakthrough, the bleak, sleazy and brilliant The Black Dahlia, which is the first instalment in the LA Quartet. This novel was notable not just for its whip-cracking dialogue and ingenious plotting, but also for its stripped-to-the-bone prose. He developed this telegram style even further as the LA Quartet went on, tearing out modifiers, and all extraneous description, leaving words that spit from the page like machine-gun bullets. The effect is unforgettable, even if it may have been accidental; Ellroy claims that his style became so extreme after an editor asked him to shorten LA Confidential by 100 pages, so he just tore words out: “Because the story was violent, and full of action, I saw the value of writing in a fast, clipped style. So I cut every unnecessary word from every sentence.”

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Perhaps that happened. Although it’s worth remembering that Ellroy’s public persona and pronouncements often contain almost as much fiction as his novels – which is part of what makes him such a compelling character. The other thing that makes him so vital is the quality of his work. On that subject, there’s no better person to turn to than Ellroy himself. In 2008, he declared: “I’m the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin’ family, if the name of your family is Manson.”

His full bibliography is:

Standalone worksBrown’s Requiem (1981)Clandestine (1982)Killer on the Road (originally published as Silent Terror) (1986)My Dark Places (1996)The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women (2010)

Lloyd Hopkins TrilogyBlood on the Moon (1984)Because the Night (1984)Suicide Hill (1986)

The LA QuartetThe Black Dahlia (1987)The Big Nowhere (1988)LA Confidential (1990)White Jazz (1992)

Underworld USA trilogyAmerican Tabloid (1995)The Cold Six Thousand (2001)Blood’s a Rover (2009)

The Second LA QuartetPerfidia (2014)This Storm (2019)

It would be fascinating to read any one of those – and all we need to do now is choose which. Simply nominate the one you most want to read below the line before 9am BST on Saturday 4 May. (And if you can give us a reason, so much the better). I’ll count up the totals and announce the winner next week.

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