|Are these cheekbones capable of murder? (yes)|
This is the route by which I come to a justification of Ellroy's body counts and casual, endemic violence, a violence that seeps into his language itself (Ellroy's prose reads kind of like Hemingway's might have if, say, Hemingway's mother had been murdered when he was young and his murderer were never caught, giving rise to such novels as The Sun Never Rises and A Farewell to Everything). The prose is exceedingly spare, especially once one moves out of the L.A. Quartet and into the Horrible People Plan Assassinations of Beloved Public Figures trilogy. The violence is never really lovingly detailed, but the language is so sparse that your imagination is already working overtime to fill in the blanks of things like, "He palled with Wayne. He palled with the cat. He spot-checked Monarch. He drooled. He called Fred Otash. He called his cop pals. They ran bulletin checks." Then picture what your brain does with this:
"Nestor dragged the bodies down to a tide pool. Boyd brought the chainsaw.
Pete yank-started it. Boyd spread the stiffs out for cutting.
The moon passed by low. Nestor supplied extra light.
Pete sawed from a crouch. The teeth caught on a leg bone straight off.
Nestor pulled the man's foot taut. The teeth whirred through easy.
Pete sawed through a string of arms. The saw kept bucking into the sand. Skin and gristle pop-pop-popped in his face."
The passage continues in this vein (again, pun intended). This is from American Tabloid, the contents of which could serve as a serviceable alternate definition for the word, 'bleak.' It, and the two novels which succeed it, deal with the events of the turbulent assassinations that rocked the country during the sixties and seventies. They don't center on the men who ordered them, but the men who carry out those orders, men who live violent lives and do violent things. And, somewhat circuitously, I come to the question of why write stuff like this at all. Out of context it almost seems like gore porn, which is not something I'm advocating.
For me it comes back to cost. The men in the American Underworld trilogy pay a high price to live the lives they lead; not only do they generally lose their lives, but they lose much of what is dear to them in the process of serving powerful, amoral men (the gender, not to mention racial, politics of Ellroy is a different issue entirely). Of the three protagonists of American Tabloid, one man dies at the hands of his former partner and friend, another takes his own life, and the third nearly dies of a brain tumor before escaping The Life, as he calls it. The narrators who are introduced to replace them suffer a similar rate of attrition. The message is not, "Maybe you guys should not have helped the Mafia assassinate the president," which admittedly are good words to live by. The message is that the central characters allow their hatreds and their demons to rule them, to let them commit acts most of us would find reprehensible, to sacrifice greater good for personal gain, to sublimate the superego to the id and nearly to a man they pay the price while those who bought their souls go untouched. The violence and the death heighten the circumstances.
A polarizing president, his justice-seeking brother, and the country's foremost advocate for peace and racial solidarity were publicly cut down, one after the other, by those who had the darkest of motives. You try to tell that story without a body count.