James Ellroy, “Hollywood Nocturnes” (1994) – James Ellroy- the great and sometimes frustrating grand master of contemporary American crime fiction; this is a collection of some of his early 90s short fiction. His short fiction magnifies both the capabilities and the shortcomings of his distinctive style. He can be masterful at summoning up his world — noir Los Angeles, either contemporary or in the fifties — in short order. The telegraphic style works well in short form, too. His characterization can go either way- sometimes deft, sometimes cheap (I remember one where one of his identical perspective-gun-thugs was mainly characterized as being “into rhinos”). The actual action is always a crapshoot- he’s always better with smaller-scale crimes than the grand and sometimes ludicrous conspiracies he sometimes conjures as endings. There’s exceptions — “Blood’s a Rover,” which caps the seminal Underworld USA series, involves a big conspiracy that actually works with the text. But by and large, the sleaze and intimate understanding of power dynamics he displays works better than his efforts at coming up with something commensurate behind it all.
The centerpiece of “Hollywood Nocturnes” and by far the best piece is a novella, “Dick Contino’s Blues.” Dick Contino was a real guy, a famous accordion-playing pop star (I have difficulty seeing how an accordion guy can get THAT famous in America, but who knows, it was the fifties). He entered the list of aspects of LA during Ellroy’s fifties childhood that made it into the matrix of the author’s noir dreams. Contino fell on hard times after being pegged as a draft-dodger (even though he eventually finished out his hitch). Ellroy puts him through several circles of the hells he creates, much of which out of things that are supposed to be pleasant: lounge acts, rigged variety shows, negotiating with the tabloid press, working as a repo man for a crooked car dealer, “infiltrating” a hopeless left-leaning reading group, sleazy d-movie productions, finally into a phoney kidnapping scheme to get him back into the limelight in a positive way. It all ends with a car chase and an encounter with an actual serial killer, but it’s the ride that really works.
There’s another good story involving an Okie ex-cop turned fixer for Howard Hughes, playing his patron off of mobster Mickey Cohen and a college-aged femme fatale. I don’t really remember the others that well, for good or ill. As usual his stories set in the mid-20th century play better than his contemporary stories. “Dick Contino’s Blues” is worth the price of admission, a ride through the noir hellscapes Ellroy conjures better than anyone. ****’