Saturday, December 28, 2013

L.A. is my Ellroy: Fiction, setting, and history

I browsed some James Ellroy before my recent trip to Los Angeles, and I've been reading his novel Blood's a Rover since I got back. One can enjoy Ellroy without having been to L.A., but, having just returned, I got a special kick out of lines such as:
"Canter's Deli in Fairfax. The 3:00 a.m. clientele: cops and ultra-soiled hippies."
I was there!!! though not at 3 a.m., and the clientele I most remember were two middle-aged working guys who did not look Jewish but who nonetheless gave the waiter a lesson in Yiddish.

Ellroy's earlier novel, The Black Dahlia, dating from a time when his books were much closer to conventional crime writing than they became, includes a long scene that, having read Kevin Starr's California, I now know was based on the Zoot Suit Riots.

Ellroy gets tons of publicity for his eccentricities and his dark past. Less noticed is his fascination with the history of Los Angeles. He may thrive on depravity, greed, and perversion, but he wants to get the historical details right. And now your questions, Part I: What novels and stories, crime or otherwise, are inextricably bound up with their settings? What stories make you feel like you're there? How do they accomplish this?  (And what cities or other settings make you feel like you're in the middle of a story?)

And Part II: Ellroy has peopled his more recent novels with historical figures and built them around historical events. Is his work historical fiction? Why? Why not?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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14 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

"[T]wo middle-aged working guys who did not look Jewish"

Really? What exactly does that mean? I'm not trying to pick a fight, but I find the statement a little odd.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sketchy on the details, but I remember that one wore a watch cap. Maybe what I found novel was that anyone not elderly knew any Yiddish at all.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

How about Adrian McKinty's novels set in Belfast - not just Belfast but Carrickfergus.

And even though Dana King made up a town for "Grind Joint" it really gets across the feel of small-town Pennsylvania.

And Charlie Stella - my favourite is still "Johnny Porno," which drops the reader in early 70s Brooklyn.

And... well, I'll stop now.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I will repeat myself by singling out Indridason and Iceland. Other writers have used Iceland as their setting. None have been as effective. The setting becomes character.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

John beat me to the McKinty references. I don't want it to sound like I'm playing catch-up, but I would have mentioned the Montreal he delivers in BLACK ROCK, right down to the shifting languages.

But I won't.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I didn’t want to blow my own horn the last time you mentioned Arnaldur and his settings, but I’ll drop the modesty this time.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I should mention that the "Funny, you don't look Jewish" motif is a trope of very long standing in North American Jewish humor.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: You mean you'll stop before you get to John McFetridge's Toronto and Montreal? No need to; I'll put them both in nomination.

The odd thing about McKinty's Carrickfergus is that the small slice of it I've seen up close--from the train station to the shore and the castle--is so pleasant these days as to be almost bucolic. It reminded me of nothing so much as a peaceful bedroom suburb to Belfast. With the exception of a storefront office of one of the alphabet soup political parties, I saw nothing that would remind a casual, uninformed visitor of the Troubles.

Belfast, too, seems largely to have bounced back. The murals are tourist draws these days, the Crown Bar is gorgeous, and the Hotel Europa, across the street, looks in fine shape. About the only chilling reminder I saw was the Peace Wall that divides the Falls Road from the Shankill. (A roar from Glasgow Rangers fans on my bus, and an answering roar from the Rangers supporters club on the Shankill did chill my blood.)

Anyhow, the upshot is that it's hard to connect the (largely) peaceful cities of today with the nervous post-industrial landscapes of McKinty's books. One might argue that that makes the books all the more important for readers.

And yep, I have said nice things about King's unsentimental settings.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, Black Rock also does a nice job sketching the social classes in Montreal. As McFetridge will tell you, Anglo/Franco is and was not the city's only social divide.

Me, I dug the police photographer.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

One of my favorite things I read this year, Louis Maistros' THE SOUND OF BUILDING COFFINS, is at one with historical New Orleans.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks; I had not heard of it. I will make every effort to read it before Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans.

Speaking of New Orleans, I also recommend Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran, if you have not read it.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Are those two titles just coincidence, or have recent books about New Orleans tended to include the dead, death, coffins, and the like in their titles?

December 28, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Leaving the gritty behind for a moment, I'm reading Henry Wade's Mist on the Saltings at the moment, based on Martin Edwards' rec, and the whole mystery is based on the fact that it is set in an area where a town in Norfolk is separated from the North Sea by a muddy tidal land, which sometimes has rivers and sometimes doesn't, depending on the time of day.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


"A study in character that was ahead of its time," says Mr. Edwards, which is a fine recommendation.

It may be relevant that Edwards' two series are colloquially named for their settings (Liverpool and the Lake District) rather than for their protagonists.

December 28, 2013  

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