Editor’s Note: For a selection of the crime fiction of James Ellroy, including the American Underworld Trilogy, click here.
James Ellroy calls it “the big scream.” He means the sound the crowd made in Dallas, when John F. Kennedy was killed. He also means it’s a joke, how America was innocent until the president was “pulped.” That’s a laugh, to Ellroy. A gas. A kick. A big scream.
That’s also a phrase about the human condition though about the way we live, fallen from grace. This world is broken with the sound of desperation and scheming, loneliness and sin-saturated dreaming. And perpetual, painful screams.
I interpret Ellroy religiously. I’m probably the only one. It may not be the best way to read the self-described “Demon Dog,” but I understand him as Lutheran with a severe sense of sin and self-condemnation. Ellroy’s a king of crime fiction, and the genre’s all about human nature, and the possibility for some sort of salvation.
I became a reader of the genre two years ago. I started because I was writing crime for a daily paper. I was trying to handle the horrible reality, personally and as a writer, and I tried to read the best crime writing, and tried to figure out how to explain my work in Christian terms. I thought I could concentrate on human catastrophe, focusing on feelings of pain and breaking hearts. I thought in brokenness I’d find empathy and, there, prayers for salvation.
This, I now suspect, is impossible.
Rather than empathy, I helped people separate themselves from sinners. My stories assured readers they were different from criminals. People read and were reaffirmed in their prejudices and politics. They found themselves innocent in their own eyes. I wrote this one story about a badly burned boy asking his father why this happened. I thought it was heartbreaking, and thought it might move readers to empathy and prayers for grace. The story was reposted on a racist website. The white supremacist read about the boy and added the headline, “Parboiled ghetto lobster!”
They read my story and found reasons not to love, not to change. I read their response and was convinced, again, of how glad I was I wasn’t like them. I read and find reasons not to love. I imagined myself innocent.
I’ve found there are only two types of crime stories with the potential to shock enough to shake imagined innocence: historical crime and political crime.
We use the historical and the political to protect ourselves, imagining with the former that things once were better and, with the latter, that our societal systems are impenetrable. When crime stories show the corruption of politics and history we’re almost forced to recognize our own corruption. It’s like the insulation is stripped off the copper, shorting everything out.
There is one contemporary work with this project: Ellroy’s current, in-process trilogy, Underworld U.S.A. When it’s completed, next year, the trilogy will span 1958 to 1978, a story about corruption, collusion, illusion, assassination, and the abrupt, violent scrawl of American history. Starting with Kennedy’s assassination, Ellroy opens with a declamation, “America has never been innocent . . . Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight.”
As he conceives it, Ellroy’s project is pushing past the crime novel’s limitations. He wants to be a Tolstoy. He does this, in American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, by being political and historical, and by including practically everybody. He includes JFK and Sonny Liston, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, the Ku Klux Klan and Wardell Gray. He has everyone in a reeling, roiling story, and then that jazz is written in the machine-gun sentences of pulp-noir, blending the country’s two great, artistic languages. He’s trying to escape genre restrictions, but in an important way, he’s actually showing what’s possible.
Raymond Chandler said Dashiel Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.” That’s the official noir project. It’s all about the fall. In the classic works of Chandler and Hammett, the reader is dropped into the alley and follows a detective through crime and confusion, until everything’s solved. The solution comes, “case closed,” and Everything is Safe Again. In the end we find the world like we thought it was. We are not the accused. We are reassured by crime fiction.
Ellroy falls farther. Taking historical-political crime, he drops the reader into the alley. The descent hasn’t reached bottom until we’re in the underworld, following Ellroy’s guides into the despicable depths, knowing these men are going to end up alcoholics, aching, alone with acidic secrets. We don’t stop until we surrender—acknowledging our own corruption, condemning ourselves.
Ellroy doesn’t have my problem. He’s not trying to break your heart. He’s not interested in my Episcopalian ideas of empathy and prayers of compassion, choosing instead a stern, Lutheran understanding of sin. Ellroy leads the reader through the underworld of corrupt human hearts until the only option is admitting our own total depravity. He unleashes staccato sentences until the reader gives up nostalgia, hagiography, and the warm insulation used as protection, giving us the illusion we don’t need to be saved.
Read Ellroy. But brace yourself for “the big scream” of sin. Your sin. Our sin. Our imagined innocence, a seedy illusion.