“Not since the days of Hammett and Chandler has the crime novel been so eloquent and seductive.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
It’s an unlikely cover image for a crime book, particularly one by that bloody, foul-mouthed, king of depravity, James Ellroy. But the accordion that adorns Dick Contino’s Blues and Other Short Stories is appropriate; both to the lead character and to the lightness of touch and tone in this collection from the sometimes febrile Ellroy.
This collection was first published in 1994, between the end of the LA Quartet and the start of the Underworld USA trilogy.
The stories themselves are from a wider date range though: Dick Contino’s Blues is from 1993, High Dark Town from 1986, Dial Axminster 6-4000 from 1987, Since I Don’t Have You from 1988; Torch Number and Gravy Train are from 1990.
There’s also one of Ellroy’s introductions, which are never less than excellent, and never shy of singing the author’s own praises.
Here – in what was first published as an article in GQ – he recounts his fascination with the titular accordion player (still with us today at 86) after seeing “the grade z flick” Daddy-O, in which Contino, his career as a musician on the skids after he was accused of draft dodging, starred in 1958. He met Contino and got his blessing to write about him.
Ellroy does what he does best in the main story, taking Contino’s story (low-level Hollywood stardom with a touch of controversy) and spinning an entertainingly over-the-top caper involving rigged talent shows, bent (everyone is Ellroy’s books is bent) FBI agents, terrible movies, a faked kidnapping and a sex killer.
High Dark Town features Lee Blanchard (from The Black Dahlia and Perfidia), working the Warrants department of the LAPD as an armed robber he sent down is paroled on VJ Day. This is a very effective and suspenseful short story, one of Ellroy’s best.
Blanchard stars again in Dial Axminster 6-4000, on the trail of three kidnappers. It rattles along, and (despite featuring plenty of blood, guts, corruption and perversion in true Ellroy fashion) is lightweight and wise cracking.
Gravy Train is set in modern Los Angeles and is the least successful story here, I think. Stan Klein, fresh out of custody, is given a simple job babysitting a dog that’s inherited a fortune. It’s as silly as that suggests.
Torch Number is also short but hits on Ellroy’s strengths: bad men doing bad things against a vivid historical backdrop, in this case the Japanese round ups after Pearl Harbour. Spade Hearns is a PI with an obsession with torch singers who gets dragged into the internments and a bank robbery case. Good meaty stuff in classic Ellroy style.
If you’re an Ellroy fan and haven’t read these stories I’d say they are certainly worth adding to your collection. Check you don’t have them though, they have been collected elsewhere I believe, and there is at least one other version of Dick Contino’s Blues.
They’re also a good primer if you want to check the Demon Dog out. In his final LA Quartet novel, White Jazz, Ellroy started to use the staccato, machine gun sentences that have become his trademark. But he didn’t have it quite right. The title story here shows him retreating from that full-throttle version of the style towards the much more successful rhythms that rattle so beautifully on through the Underworld USA Trilogy.
I was interested to spot that as well as characters and names – there’s an FBI Agent Stensland here, a name familiar from the Black Dahlia – Ellroy can even reuse lines he likes: a version of “like the DTs without the benefits of booze” is trotted out twice.
That’s fine by me. I love Ellroy’s style. These are light by James’s standards – which still means lots of violence, racism, homophobia (I do have a problem with the way Ellroy writes gay characters, who are – I think without exception and often offensively so – stereotypical), and very few sympathetic characters. Contino, with whom Ellroy was obviously struck, is a rare exception.
Added 4th April 2016