The sturm and drizzle genius of Ellroy

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Crime Wave by James Ellroy (Arrow £6.99)

Crime Wave by James Ellroy (Arrow £6.99)

Crime writer James Ellroy once gave a reading to a politely appreciative London bookshop audience from his novel The Black Dahlia. He told the assembled listeners that he had just lost custody of his beloved bulldog in a largely amicable divorce. He howled to the moon in the manner of said dog in the most terrifying manner in order to convey to us his ineffable grief. I don't think anyone understood what on earth he was on about. But we understood this: that James Ellroy is obsessed with the dark side of his hometown Los Angeles; he is enamoured of its panty-sniffing sleazeballs, its DOAs and its low-down, dirty hustlers. Furthermore, we understood that his mother was murdered when he was 10 years old, and that the killer was never found; that he is addicted to paperback crime novels and trashy scandal rags, and that he is one of America's greatest living writers.

Crime Wave showcases him at his short and snappy best. It is a mix of reportage and novella that gives vent to his explosive prose style, his love-hate relationship with alliterative prose and his sturm und drizzle genius. "Body Dumps" exemplifies this fascination with unsolved murder and his ability to convert police notes and news coverage into mesmerising and visceral literature.

He takes the unsolved case of a murdered woman and enlarges her sorry tale of "white trash and low-rent Latin" into wider focus; in so doing, he provides a fragmentary glimpse of Tinseltown as viewed from the gutter. Then, he takes the memories of a has-been, Dean Martin lookalike accordionist and turns them into the apocryphal story of a stars-in-his-eyes sucker in "Hollywood Shakedown". His language comes straight and undiluted from the streets, and sordidness lies at the heart of his mysteries.

Finally, we hear about "My Mother's Killer", about Ellroy's handling of her story in his bestselling My Dark Places and her reproachful haunting of him: "My death gave you a voice, and I need you to recognize me past your exploitation of it." Ellroy is painfully aware of his and his readers' vicarious pleasure in digesting the gory details of murder, and in the grubbiness of the crime writer's job as he dishes out the dirt for our thrills and elucidation. But, ultimately, he must concede that Crime Wave is his story, his mother's story and America's story in the second half of the 20th century.