James Ellroy is among the most gifted, celebrated, reviled, and misunderstood writers of crime fiction of the past 30 years, cultivating a larger-than-life, egotistical public persona and sending mixed messages about his political and religious views with gleeful abandon. All this makes him an ideal subject for the consistently excellent McFarland Companions series. Following a biographical introduction and chronology of Ellroy’s life, the alphabetically arranged main text offers multipage double-column descriptions of all his books, plus briefer pieces on short stories and nonfiction articles. Other entries discuss the characters who appear in his fiction, both imagined (e.g., Lloyd Hopkins, Dudley Smith, Ed Exley, Buzz Meaks) and historical (e.g., Mickey Cohen, Dick Contino, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, Oscar Levant, J. Edgar Hoover, Bayard Rustin). Topical essays cover such matters as alcoholism, classical music, family, female characters, homosexuality, incest, love, masculinity, pornography, race, religion, and voyeurism. A piece on style is especially interesting on the “telegraphese” of the later novels. Included among literary influences are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Wambaugh, and Dragnet star Jack Webb’s nonfiction The Badge. The name of John Dos Passos, whose USA Trilogy might seem a likely influence on the author of the LA Quartet and Underworld USA Trilogy, comes up again and again, though Ellroy has said he’s never read him. An annotated primary and secondary bibliography fills eight pages.
A quick check of Edgar nominations in the biographical/critical category shows that the six volumes to date in the McFarland Companion series, edited by Elizabeth Foxwell, have been shut out. Astonishing for some of the most valuable reference sources in the crime fiction genre.