Jack’s Books: Meet James and Jane!

I had to laugh seeing James Ellroy and Jane Austen on this issue of the blog. It might be the first time their names appeared together.

Ellroy is the pot-boiler poet laureate of Los Angeles—most famous for “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia”. His novels, spread over many decades, also cover many eras. The seamy underbelly of the glamorous West Coast capital, stories told in often-profane slang and stream-of-consciousness—his books are among my favorite reads of all time. Great writers write L.A. (think Michael Connelly, below, Ross MacDonald, Jonathan Kellerman, et. al) but Ellroy is the Czar.

And he has a voice some people love, and others, however they may try, don’t get.

I just finished his most recent, “Widespread Panic” (2021), which takes the real-life and infamous L.A.-based private investigator, Fred Otash, who owned the town from the end of WW2 until his unraveling in the ’60s, and plugs him into fictional-but-plausible plots involving everyone from JFK to Orson Welles.  As to the age-old question about authors–“do I have to read his books in order?”–the answer is complicated. Ellroy has some series, and these must be read in order. Look, you’re either gonna get James Ellroy or not.

If you do, you’ll read everything.

Jane Austen lived and died over 200 years ago, and likely wouldn’t have “got” Ellroy. Or would she? Like the LA author, Jane had a tragic childhood (Ellroy’s mother was raped and murdered when he was little; Austen’s family was plagued with disgrace and mental illness) which probably shaped her worldview. And what a worldview it is.

Much more famous since her death, her books drew little attention in her lifetime. In “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), Austen is writing a wry narrative about class and womanhood in the British system of her day. It’s likely that a woman of her time could never have addressed these issues in any other way but obliquely—telling a story to make points about marriage, money and morals.

In its own way, “Pride” is also not always easy to read. If Ellroy is slinging hipster lingo and pervy patter, Austen’s voice is all plummy and proper. It was slow going until I picked up the “beat” of how early-19th century people talked. It’s English, but beautifully polished. You will soon realize how much has changed in 200 years, and how little has.

As the song says, “Women needs man/And man must have his mate/That no one can deny.”

I’d give anything to bring James Ellroy and Jane Austen together to talk THAT over.

Also this month:

“The Midnight Line” by Lee Child (2017) It starts, as all the Jack Reacher novels do, with the ex-Army MP nomading around the country. In Wisconsin, at a bus stop, he sees a West Point class ring in a pawn shop, and suspects that behind it must be a tragic story. Which there is, as he discovers an opioid smuggling operation and a grievously-wounded female veteran–a character you will never forget.

“Vermillion” by Nathan Aldyne (1980) First in a series, this novel starts with the murder of a young male hustler, whose body is dumped on the front lawn of a conservative state representative. Everyone wants the case closed, but two friends in the local “scene” team up to solve it right.

“Razor’s Edge: Dreamland” by Dale Brown and Jim DeFelice (2003) The US has a lethal, super-secret mobile chemical-laser weapon. Suddenly, it appears, the same technology is in the hands of a enemy regime. The “Dreamland” warriors are frantically operating behind enemy lines as US planes are falling out of the sky.

“Two Kinds of Truth” by Michael Connelly (2017) Connelly has had great success with three main”universes”: ex-LAPD detective Harry Bosch, “Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller, and young detective Renee Ballard. Ballard and Bosch have collaborated, and Bosch and Haller are half-brothers, so naturally they can and do help each other. In “Two Kinds of Truth”, a double-homicide at an inner-city pharmacy leads to Bosch going undercover to bust a “pill-mill” drug-abuse scheme.

“The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer (1951) Twenty years before he wrote one of the century’s most-acclaimed books of philosophy, Eric Hoffer was seconds away from drinking poison to kill himself. We are lucky that he chickened out. Instead, he became an acclaimed “longshoreman/philospher” (yes, really) who met presidents and lectured at universities. Keeping his life ascetic and reclusive, he wrote a book we need today more than in 1951. “The True Believer” is about mass-movements, what they have in common, what people get out of them, why they join, and how similar they all are. He will make you stop and think, be very uncomfortable at times, and at other times, be convinced he’s still alive and watching us in 2023. People join movements as a substitute for autonomy,  he says. Consequently, they care less about the ideology, or the results, and much more about the feeling of belonging, and the excuse for not having to act or think independently.

It explains a lot these days, about a lot of “movements”, doesn’t it.

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