THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH! So says James Ellroy more than once in LAPD ’53, a slim new volume of crime scene photographs from the L.A. Police Museum, with Ellroy providing some tasty narrative spice.
It seems like a dream match – the self-proclaimed demon dog of American crime fiction, paired up with scenes from America’s greatest crime town from a year that featured, among other incidents, the murder of Mabel Monohan by Barbara Graham and two accomplices, a heinous wrongdoing which inspired the film I Want to Live!, where Susan Hayward won an Oscar. Of course, Hollywood turned the story of “Bloody Babs” into a typical anti-death penalty weeper, with Hayward playing Graham as an innocent. “Fuck that shit!!!,” writes Ellroy. “Barbara Graham was a stone junkie and a stone killer!!!! She deserved to fry!!!!!”
You get the idea. It’s that sort of book, with Ellroy strutting his stuff and not looking back.
The LA police haven’t had a friend like Ellroy since the glory days of Jack Webb and Dragnet. He’s quite open about his love for the LA cops, and admits that he prefers the company of cops to writers. I might agree with him, for most of the writers I’ve met have lacked a certain something. Then again, most of the cops I’ve met have lacked a certain something, too. So LAPD ’53 allows Ellroy to wallow in his cop fetish, and this is especially interesting since in 1953 the LA cops were tall, square-jawed fellows who could’ve pulled weekend duty as Jack Kennedy’s bodyguards. One particular photo called “The Eagle” focuses on a big blond cop poised on his idling motorcycle, looking out over the new LA Freeway. In his bomber jacket and boots he could be a Gestapo enforcer overlooking a vulnerable Jewish village, but he’s a mere LA copper, “an ardent proponent of the stern rule of law.”
Not surprisingly, Ellroy is at his best when the pic gives him something specific to dig into, such as the one where a fellow has hanged himself, but not before squeezing into a woman’s one piece bathing suit, a white bathing cap, and kinky white boots. “Sexual identity horrifically asserted in death,” Ellroy notes. “The suicide tableau for All-Fucking-Time. It’s artful. It’s ingenious. It bespeaks an unutterable horror. The man could not take it one second longer. The man spent a full week composing his own death.” The grim suicide, the throat cutting, the body stuffed under a car’s backseat, give Ellroy a target for his riffs. But some of the crime scenes don’t give much on which Ellroy can reflect, so his mind begins to wander. Ellroy’s idea of a reverie is when he imagines himself as a five-year-old junkie, be-bopping in some joint with Lenny Bruce. These playful asides are distracting, and a bit jarring. And does Ellroy have to mention his father’s schlong in every piece of autobiography he writes? Ellroy readers know what I’m talking about. His old man’s tweaker appears in Ellroy’s work as often as Mickey Cohen and the Black Dahlia.
Unfortunately, not all of the subjects in LAPD ’53 are as thought provoking as the dead dude in the bathing cap. A lot of them are rather drab shots of police officers pointing to bullet holes. These shots don’t give Ellroy much to work with, so he does a lot of vamping. And Theda Bara, he aint. By page four, he has twice used the expression “a snootful of jungle juice”. Were Ellroy’s friends at the LAPD Museum so thrilled to have bestselling author Ellroy working on their book that they let him do as he pleased, unedited and unencumbered? The problem, or what seemed to be a problem for me, is that Ellroy’s hyperkinetic writing style has degenerated into “Ellroy shtick”. He’s like an old Las Vegas stand-up comic who knows the audience has paid to hear the old stuff, so he gives it to ‘em, gives it to ‘em goooood. It’s an easy day at the office. Jungle juice, indeed.
Strangely, aside from a couple of mildly bloody scenes, the pics feel polite and restrained. This, according to Ellroy, was by design. “We’ve seen too many splatter shots with artful disarray,” he writes, adding that the pics in LAPD ’53 “seek to rebuke crime scene chic.” Yet, by leaving out the bloodier aspects of LA crime in that year, the book feels like a soft-pedal of old Los Angeles, censored for family viewing. The truth is that violent scenes would’ve totally overshadowed Ellroy’s essays. Who wants to read Ellroy rhapsodizing about his hero, good ol’ LAPD Chief “Whiskey Bill” Parker, when we could be looking at nasty crime pics, the kind with hair on the wall and bits of skull on the ceiling? Who wants to be tasteful when we’re reading about LA’s killer scum?
Still, there is at least one photo that burns into the memory banks, and I wouldn’t have noticed it except for my habit of removing the book jacket when I read a book. LAPD ’53 has a pic on the back inside cover of a young man with a flattop haircut. He’s trying to affect a Robert Mitchum glare, like he’s never given a damn about anything and wouldn’t know how. But look closely, and you’ll see that his left ear has been blown off. It’s hanging from the side of his head like a hunk of cabbage. It’s startling. This is the image I want in a book like this, not heroic cops “poised to righteously interdict and suppress.” Yet, it lurks hidden in the book’s rear car, unmentioned by the superstar author, a smirking hint of the book that could’ve been.
- Don Stradley