James Ellroy


THE man who set the seal on the rehabilitation of US crime writing was, to the surprise of many and the dismay of some, Bill Clinton. The President’s public praise for Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins detective novels provided conclusive proof, if it were needed, that crime fiction had mass America’s total endorsement. The days when crime novels were considered pulp fiction, trash literature fit only for cheap B-movies and obscure cult bookstores, were thus consigned to history.
Mosley, of course, was not the only source of the acclaim, nor its sole beneficiary. Forty-three years after Dashiell Hammett was blacklisted by Congress’s UnAmerican Activities Committee, both he and Raymond Chandler had already been firmly embraced by the literary establishment and reassessed by academics and critics alike, their work elevated from Crime to Classic.
And while Elmore Leonard has for years been the undisputed king of con-temporary American crime writing, his rivals — the likes of Carl Hiaasen, Lawrence Block and George V Higgins — have now joined him to take occupancy of bookshops in airports across America and the world. Since Jonathan Demme’s film of Thomas Harris’s The Silence Of The Lambs in particular, movie stars and Hollywood studios have been queuing up to buy crime titles, pouring so much money into them that the results are no longer just cult cop movies but big budget blockbusters. Even the less polished, less presentable, practitioners of American crime, like Andrew Vachss and James Crumley, have become regular fixtures on network TV’s chat-show circuit.
The gravy train that has slowly been gathering steam for the last two decades suddenly seems to be careering out of control. But the one man to miss out has been James Ellroy. Despite the slavering praise of the critics, who consider that his massive bestseller, The Black Dahlia, and the other three novels that make up his “LA Quartet”—The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz — have challenged and changed the crime genre, Ellroy has never achieved the profile of a Leonard or Hiaasen. Movie sales and public endorsements from the President have been in pretty short supply. And you won’t find Ellroy having a cosy chin- wag on Good Morning America or The Larry King Show. Not even the late-night talk shows like Letterman or Jay Leno will have him.
Anyone in the audience at London’s National Film Theatre one lively night last February will understand why. The occasion is a special screening of the only film that has been made of an Ellroy book, the lurid 1978 thriller, Cop, directed by James B Harris, and adapted from Ellroy’s third novel, Blood On The Moon. The film is to be followed by an on-stage interview and audience discussion with Ellroy, watched by a capacity crowd of crime fiction connoisseurs and serious film buffs. But neither the literary discussion nor the film debate goes the way the audience and the organisers expect.
To warm applause, Ellroy, a large, loud, hyperactive figure with a film noir narrator’s voice and a manic glint in his eye, ambles to the stage and, without hesitation, starts simulating oral sex with the microphone stand. He greets the audience by howling like a dog and reciting a few lines of some sort of psycho beatnik poetry: “Bring back the dead,” he chants, excitedly. “And give them head.”
“Who dug the movie?” he asks, before the head of the NFT, Adrian Wootlon, can ask his first question. “Who thought the book was better than the movie? Who thought I should have played Detective Lloyd Hopkins? Who thought I should have played the killer?” Ellroy grins, wiggling his eyebrows fiendishly.
Wootton gamely asks Ellroy to tell us something of his background, and Ellroy launches into his resume, delivering it in bulletfire banner headlines, racing with relish through his years of drug addiction and alcoholism; his adolescent obsession with sleazy sex crimes and gory homicide; and the voracious sexual appetite of his bull terrier, Barko. The pivotal episode of his life, Ellroy informs the audience lasciviously, came when he was 10. His mother, a nurse at an electronics plant, was murdered. “Yeah, she got whacked. Snuffed out. The case was never solved.”
By now, the crowd’s initial expectant enthusiasm has swiftly waned, replaced by a sensation of deep dismay and obvious unease. Oblivious, Ellroy continues, talking at length about the brilliance of his books, and indulging in salacious showbiz gossip. His insistence that Bill Clinton has been “pouring the pork” to Barbra Streisand is accompanied by thrusting fist movements, loud grunting noises and much wiggling of the eyebrows. His long, litigious list of alleged closet bisexuals and suspected drug- taking homosexuals in Hollywood is unprintable. “God bless the queers,” he rejoices. “More women for the rest of us.”
By the time Ellroy reveals that he has done time in the County Jail for breaking into houses and sniffing women’s underwear and that he wrote one of crime fiction’s earliest serial killer novels in the first person, many NFT members are calculating how to make it to the exit without attracting his attention.
For my part, the evening ends with a message on my answering machine. “Jim. How’s the hammer hangin’, big fella? Long and strong Daddy-O? Al-rriiight. We should get together. Come over to LA. Gimme a call. It’s James Ellroy. Woof, woof. Demon Dog of American Literature. Woof.” And with that, he was gone.

IT’S a truly beautiful day in Los Angeles, and the Demon Dog of American Literature is driving round Hancock Park looking for Howard Hughes’s “fuckpads”. Hughes is one of Ellroy’s favourites, a regular in his fiction, though even he snarls at the sight of the sign for “Howard Hughes Parkway”.
“Nobody realises what a piece of shit he was—a junkie, lecher, sleazebag. There are rumours that Hughes was gay and banging both Cary Grant and Randolph Scott but I like him better as a junkified womaniser. It plays into my scheme more.”
Welcome to James Ellroy’s LA. Ellroy’s tour takes in some of the haunts of his youth and even some of the homes of his fictional characters, the brothers and sisters and friends he never had. As he drives, he recites the sights: The Good Samaritan Hospital, “where The Big Dog was born. March 4,1948.”; The Old Neighbourhood, “now Koreatown. Signs all in Korean, not many roundeyes come down here now.”
Few writers are as heavily immersed in the setting of their fiction as James Ellroy. His appetite for the atmosphere of LA sleaze in the Fifties and his passion for the language of the times have made Ellroy’s stories the most visceral, vivid chronicles of the city since Raymond Chandler’s.
But Ellroy’s weary, slightly melancholy tone confirms that this tour could well be one of his last. “James Ellroy’s LA” (West Hollywood, circa 1945-58) has changed, beyond recognition. So much so that even Ellroy has grown tired of looking for it “LA’s got so completely out of hand,” he sighs. “It isn’t even believable to me any more.” Ellroy, the man whose obsession with the city of his youth and its depiction has consumed him for 11 books, has moved on and, in his new novel, finally left LA behind.
Ellroy, for the third time, has committed crime fiction’s cardinal sin—throwing away a winning, selling, formula. At the height of their success, he jettisoned the best-selling Lloyd Hopkins books. Then he abandoned the conventional, if complex, narrative style of his 1987 prizewinner, The Black Dahlia, completing his LA Quartet with the three pulsating, twisted epics that expanded the parameters of crime writing and stylistically set himself apart from his contemporaries for good.
Now in his new novel, American Tabloid, Ellroy has not only turned his back on LA, he has killed off the crime novel altogether. His staple trademarks — the hideous murder scenarios and feverishly obsessive police investigations — are gone, along with the sick killer psychology, the brutal, demented detectives, and “insanely violent” anti-heroes.
Instead, the principal arena of American Tabloid is political greed and corruption, focusing on the rise of JFK, Bobby Kennedy’s war on organised crime, and the CIA’s campaign against Cuba. Around these, Ellroy weaves several uncharacteristically straightforward storylines about the increasingly internecine relationship between Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, J Edgar Hoover, Joe Kennedy and mobsters Santos Trafficante, Carlos Marcello and Sam Giancana.
“It’s a book,” Ellroy beams, “for all the family. If your family’s name happens to be Manson.”

OF COURSE LA still preys on his mind. The city where his mother was murdered, LA was James Ellroy’s life. It formed (and warped) his mind. His “City of Nightmares”. And so his tour of the city goes on. A publicity demon whose fearsome egotism has won him few allies, like a lot of crime writers, Ellroy learned early on to sell his books by selling himself— his seedy, past self— trading heavily on his ex-alcoholic, petty-criminal credentials. He could rattle off the Demon Dog biography in his sleep.
The day after his mother’s death, he moved in with his father. “I forced some tears out that Sunday—and none since.” His father, an accountant, a “womaniser, minor hero in the war, bullshit artist”, worked briefly as Rita Hayworth’s business manager in the late Forties, prompting his son’s passion for Hollywood sleaze in the process. Ellroy would spend the nights alone, waiting up for his father, watching the cars, “wondering where they were going, whether sex was involved, wondering where my father was, whether he was going to get murdered.”
The second pivotal episode of James Ellroy’s life came on his 11th birthday when his father gave him a book called The Badge by Jack Webb. It included a haunting 10-page summary of the “Black Dahlia” murder case. Tortured and mutilated, she was found naked, dumped on wasteland in LA, like Ellroy’s mother. Her body had been severed in half.
“The killing was never solved. The two killings merged in my mind. LA crime bit on the balls like a ravenous pit-bull. I read shitloads of crime novels. They gave me tidy resolutions to dark deeds… From that point on, my life went astray.”
He was 17 when his father died. We pass his father’s house, and are soon cruising round some of the nicest, most civilised, homes in LA. As if he’s picked up a scent, Ellroy leans forward to the windscreen, eagerly looking out for landmarks, as he drives.
Hancock Park: “Dig the feeling. Forbidden fruit. I grew up on the edge of here, hungry. Late at night I used to walk the dog past these ritzy houses, looking in the windows. Women getting undressed. Kids with brothers and sisters, money. I wanted it. I was very, very curious about these people.”
South Arden: He points out the houses he used to break into to “prowl around the bedroom, sniff women’s undergarments, have a sandwich, you know. That’s Peggy Zader’s place. I knew her. Her panties specifically.”
The Western Hotel: From the days when Ellroy used to buy amphetamines from Gene The Short Queen (Ellroy’s front teeth are ground down almost to the gums). When funds were low, Ellroy would fuel his habit by drinking Romilar CF cough syrup or by swallowing the cotton wads from Denzedrex nasal inhalers. “A tremendous trip.”
He would sleep the nights in Robert Bums Park “bombed out of my fucking mind”, taking speed and masturbating maniacally. “There weren’t too many people living there then. I was ahead of my time. I was avant-garde.”
Ellroy lived this avant-garde life for 11 years, “living off stolen steaks, taking acid, smoking Maryjane, reading crime novels, drunk, drunk, drunk. I used to drink short-dog bottles of Thunderbird. I can recall the taste even now,” he says with a kind of quiet awe, “and how they get it down, I’ll never know. What does it taste like? It tastes like shit.”
He caught pneumonia several times and was eventually told the abscesses on his lungs would kill him in six months if he didn’t quit
The Bel Air Country Club: “1977,I quit drink, quit drugs, started caddying for $200-$300 a week.” The twinkle comes back to James Ellroy’s eyes. “One year later, I had an idea for a crime novel.” James Ellroy’s life, which had been careering “astray” for 29 years, had finally found its higher purpose.

FEW stereotypes are as tempting as that of the American crime writer. But dedicated disciples of the men who depict the dark deeds and mean streets of US criminal life are invariably disappointed if they meet them. Most American crime writers have lived through enough wild times and hard living to want to dry out, settle down, play golf and enjoy the considerable rewards of their hard-earned fame. They go to AA groups, teach creative writing and live nice, respectable lives.
James Crumley, James Hall, James Lee Burke, Carl Hiaasen, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Block, Andrew Vachss, Elmore Leonard… as nice a bunch of guys as you could hope to meet. The only vice they share these days is an addiction to writing that could turn them into workaholics.
Ellroy, whose stated intention has consistently been to write the “biggest, baddest, sickest, ugliest, most sex-saturated, unformulaic, most pervasively evil, profound fucking crime novels of all time”, is no exception, although he’s so eccentric that even Vachss regards him as something of a maverick.
So when he arrives at The Ivy, a suffocatingly staid, exclusive restaurant in London, Ellroy fits right in, dressed in smart navy blazer and tie. With his hangdog expression and Hitleresque hairdo, he cuts a bizarre but dignified figure, like a cross between Groucho Marx and Catch-22’s Milo Minderbinder. Only his habit of cleaning his ears with the end of a safety pin suggests we are in the presence of the Demon Dog.
These days James Ellroy lives in an affluent suburb of Connecticut with his wife Helen Knode, although he is considering moving to Kansas City. “Your dollar doesn’t go a long way in Connecticut. Too swanko.”
Ellroy’s mantra is: peace and quiet, containment and discipline. He walks the dog, watches boxing or the “occasional bum fuck crime movie” on TV, and listens to Beethoven (“the German Ellroy”). “I live in the work. Apart from my wife, there is nothing else. I got enough crazy stuff in my head without living any more.”
At the age of 31, having dried out, quit crime and stopped living in parks, Ellroy started writing his first novel, by hand (as he does to this day), in black block capitals, standing up at the desk of a cheap hotel room.
He took his inspiration from the mass of crime books he had read as a youth — Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer stories, James Jones, Ed McBain, Joseph Wambaugh, Dashiell Hammett — these and the demons inside his raging, racing mind. Inside his past.
Brown’s Requiem, set in the sleazy, shady world of skid row caddies, was followed by Clandestine, based loosely on his mother’s murder. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, he gave the killer many of his father’s physical attributes.
The Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy was straightforward pulp fiction but with a “demented, out-to-fucking-lunch” cop hero driven by his own “psycho-sexual behaviour”, eschewing the Chandler myth for good. “The Private Eye novel is bullshit,” Ellroy would say. “The last time a PI investigated a homicide was never.”
But the LA Quartet, as Ellroy puts it, “is where it explodes”. Seemingly written in a kind of violent fever, the LA Quartet is as intense, disturbed and exhilarating as crime writing gets.
The plots got bigger, the line between cops and criminals became thinner, the crimes grew sicker. By White Jazz, he was purging his own personal obsessions and manias so intensely that the writing had become virtually rabid shorthand, an adrenalin-fuelled, paranoiac be-bop/re-bop stream-of-consciousness that critics compared to “jazz poetry”.
The Quartet dispenses with tidy resolutions and the wrong-side-of-the-tracks, cool, super-sleuths. Ellroy’s heroes are savagely-drawn monsters: racist, homophobic, brutal bag-men, “shitbirds” and “fiends” like Dave “The Enforcer” Klein and “Trashcan Jack” Vincennes who operate scams and break people’s legs for the likes of Hughes, Hoffa and Hoover (Ellroy’s un-Holy Trinity.)
“I want my readers to have ambiguous relationships with my characters. I want any process of identification that I engender to be based on my readers’ most hidden sexual agenda, for them to identify with, then recoil, over a casually-uttered “faggot” or “nigger”.
He fleshed them out by pouring his own sick psyche and fantasies into them. Ellroy’s protagonists are invariably tormented by personal demons from the past: dark sexual or narcotic cravings; secret guilt; sleazy family histories, and, inevitably, murdered mothers and sisters. They are hurtling towards their doom. “My characters are people who have come to some sort of moral reckoning, who look toward self-sacrifice as some kind of redemption.” As his subplots suggest, Ellroy seems genuinely to believe that Hollywood is intrinsically corrupt, that all actors are “morally defective”.
“Basically,” he shrugs almost apologetically, “I’m the nice-guy version of these right-wing, bad-ass sociopathic cats. People think I’m “cutting edge”. I am such a square. I’m appalled by all this low-life shit though I also revel in it.”
His other innovation was to rewrite LA history (“a humble desire”). packing the Quartet with real life characters like low- life gangster Mickey Cohen and corrupt police chief William Parker.
Ellroy’s first, and greatest, obsession, though, remained murder victim Elizabeth Short—The Black Dahlia. Ellroy had never written about the case because he thought John Gregory Dunne’s novel True Confessions precluded it. He waited 29 years for his fixation to find some sort of catharsis
On a documentary for Austrian television a few years ago, Ellroy is seen standing on the spot where Short’s body was found, on Norton Avenue and 39th Street, in what is now South Central. Looking oddly hesitant, humbled, Ellroy remembers how, as a kid, he used to ride over there on his bicycle and “feel her presence. sense what was done to her”.
He had endless nightmares about her torture and dismemberment and terrible “daytime flashes” of her presence. When he was 22, he went to her grave. “I felt that I knew her then. I felt that I loved her, I sensed she and I as the same person.”
Having, for years, poured his love for a dead woman into the wrong person, he dedicated his novel The Black Dahlia, to Geneva Ellroy. “Mother: Twenty years later, this valediction in blood.” He would point out how “the book ends with the word ‘love”. For the time being at least. James Ellroy’s exorcism was complete; the demons laid to rest.

WE ARE in James Ellroy’s favourite restaurant in Los Angeles, The Pacific Dining Car, where Ellroy met his wife, Helen, and a regular haunt of the characters in the LA Quartet. In these environs at least, James Ellroy is content “The fucking wonder and beauty of my life,” he muses. “It’s one of life’s strange fucking anomalies—that one of the happiest guys alive should write the books I write.”
Four years ago. Ellroy said: “I have one great goal: to be the greatest crime writer of all time.” Maybe he feels White Jazz wrapped it up. American Tabloid is not crime ficton. Ellroy sees the book as an extension of the LA Quartet (it flows on chronologically, with Hughes’s hoodlum. Pete Bondurant, as the link), but the crimes of American Tabloid do not pertain to the police but to political office and the “private nightmare of public policy”. The greed and corruption, and ruthless brutality are, needless to say, unchanged. “A book like The Black Dahlia is a very good crime novel. I don’t think it’s anywhere near the work of art American Tabloid is… What a monster of a book. It’s really an extravagant, almost elegant, story.”
Tabloid is the first part of Ellroy’s “Underworld USA Trilogy”. Part Two will be I963-68 – Howard Hughes’s Las Vegas, Vietnam War heroin deals, Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald. Part Three will be ’68-70. Nixon and Watergate
“My basic design as a novelist is to recreate America in the 20th century through crime novels.” he says doggedly. “I believe in the continuum. I want you to feel that it goes on and on and on and on and on and on.”
Like Don DeLillo’s Libra. American Tabloid has three fictional protagonists – Pete Bondurant, and FBI agents Kemper Boyd and Ward Littell — stepping into history, playing off the Kennedys against Hughes, Hoffa, J Edgar Hoover and the Mob.
Ultimately though, Tabloid’s brave change of crime, time and setting seems to hate inhibited Ellroy’s imagination. The hunger in the writing is not the same. What saves the three protagonists from bevoming mere ciphers for Ellroy’s hard, fast slashes of action is the way he invests them with his own traumas, hit own passion and heart.
Kemper Boyd is looking for a family in the Kennedys. Bondurant and Littell bond with him as brothers. All three are mourning dead relatives, their lives eaten up by secret guilts and private tragedy. “I’ve always felt sort of odd being an only child,” admits Ellroy. “I always wished I had a brother or sister. I grew up alone. And developed an imagination because of it.”
The missing family. All this time it’s hung over everything Ellroy’s written, like a shroud. Haunted him all of his life. Finally, he decided to face it, head on.
“ If you really want to achieve Greatness,” James Ellroy says, “you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to keep going back into yourself.”

A HOTEL cocktail bar on Laguna Beach, California, where for the last few week, James Ellroy has been temporarily based, “going back into himself”. He is reinvestigating his mother’s murder. His investigation will form the basis of his next book.
Ellroy has spent 15 years writing crime fiction in order to exorcise the ghosts and guilts that stemmed from the day in 1934 when his mother’s body was found. To most people, looking at such an event all aver again is the emotional equivalent of taking the flame that has been threatening to burn a way at you for most of your life and holding your hand in it.
And yet Ellroy strides into the hotel full of the joys and raring to go. He stands by a picture on the wall of the Hotel Laguna back in 1946, staring up at it, like a child; rapt. ” Wow, “he say, as much to himself as anyone. “The Black Dahlia was still alive then.”
James Ellroy’s ghosts, it seems, never really let him go.
All crime writers need a gimmick, something to sell the press. A few years ago, Ellroy realised he had an angle few could equal: the Crime Writer Whose Mother Was Murdered. He used it, played on it and, in the end, virtually flogged it to death. “She was my mother. I can exploit her death if I want.” he would say, enjoying the impact. “I’m sure she’d appreciate me turning a few bucks out of it”
Last year, Ellroy wrote about the episode of his mother’s death in an uncomfortably introspective piece for American GQ, in which he struggled to acknowledge his love for her and assuage some of the remorse, specifically about his devotion to The Black Dahlia.
Like any child, he had blamed himself for his mother’s death. He fell guilty too about a specific exchange on his 10th birthday, when she had angrily forced him to choose between living with her or with his father. He chose his father and she slapped him. He called her a drunken whore. Three months later she was dead.
Geneva Ellroy was found in some bushes by the athletics field of Arroyo High School in El Monte, 12 miles east of Los Angeles. She had been strangled. She had last been seen alive drinking in a bar with a blonde woman and a man in his early 40s, nicknamed by the police “The Swarthy Man”, and then at a drive-in with the man alone.
When police told him his mother was dead, his picture had been taken by a press photographer. Judging his face in the piece in GQ, Ellroy maintained his thoughts had been wholly selfish, opportunistic. He was, he insisted “already calculating potential advantages”. He did not go to the funeral. When his father died, he claimed his reaction had been the same “Now l’m free. ”
“I loved my mother but had a complex relationship with the death almost immediately. It felt ambiguous to me. On some dark level, I felt relieved.”
The piece was ostensibly intended to recognise his mother, and express his guilt at having denied his love for her. But even here, he accused her of inciting the attack by demanding sex from the man (who has never been traced) suspected of killing her: another impossibly harsh judgement that he also now regrets.
Perhaps it was this, and the fact that, he says, he resembles her more and more, that inspired the idea of writing a non-fiction book—his next, about his mother’s murder.
“I’m trying to correct a grievance. I want it to be a memoir, a personal journey and,” he adds, without irony, “a big media event as well.”
He has spent months in California working with a former detective on the case from the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. Bill Stonar, reinvestigating the case. He has eaten several meals in El Monte where she met The Swarthy Man, and interviewed the car-hop who served them at the drive in. Next month a nationwide appeal for information will go out on American television.
Ellroy’s excitement is palpable. “It was a powerful experience to see the file. It’s the central story of my life and I have to go back and confront it. It’s not terribly far-fetched, the notion of identifying this man. He could be dead. Even if he can’t be brought to justice, we can still let him know he’s been found.”
Time, though, is running out. Two of the primary investigators on the case are dead. Another (the man who took him aside and said, “son your mother’s been killed”) “can’t remember shit”. The key witness (the blonde) has not yet been identified, let alone traced.
“It’s another lifetime,” he admits, perhaps hinting at part of the appeal.
For the documentary on Austrian television, Ellroy went to the spot where his mother’s body was found, and returned to the house where he lived with her. The big bear of a man looks pale, glum, shaken. He tries to laugh it off—it’s great to be back, what can I say?” —but chokes on the words, his bravado and egotism suddenly gone. He looks like a little boy, someone completely alone in the world.
“There are moments when I’m alone with it,” he tells me sombrely, “it’s like I’m with the ghost of my mother and, increasingly, the ghost of a killer. I feel like I’m getting a handle on it. Maybe.”
I ask him how the event shaped the way he sees the world and for the first time he doesn’t have the answer off-pat. “I believe in God. Strongly. I have a kid’s belief in the Almighty. I try to lead a moral life cos I believe I’m going to be judged. I honestly figure I’m going to be judged on the basis of ‘How hard did you work? Did you take the easy way out?’ “
The thought of judgment obviously weighs heavily on him. He is itching to get going, get back on the case.
“People only see the Demon Dog side, but that’s about 5 per cent.” he says as if he’s the first person who’s ever realised this. “Hopefully, these books will live on after my lifetime. Underpinning the act. I’m a pretty serious guy. There’s just certain woof, woof, canine, je ne sais quoi.” he smiles with a shrug.
“All I want is for people to took at the books on their own terms and let me bark a little bit now and again because, you know, I work hard I don’t drink, don’t take drugs or chase strange women. So cut me some slack. Let me bark. And drink out of the toilet and wear a flea collar. That’s all I ask.
Woof-woof, James. Woof-woof.