James Ellroy is the first author since Hammet, Chandler and MacDonald to have reinvented the hard-boiled genre. Especially The Black Dahlia has made him a well-known author. Ellroy cannot be accused of being modest. His bragging (“My aim is to be the best writer of crime fiction in America”) has outraged many. Equally controversial is the way in which he exploits the death of his mother in his work and public appearances: “In time honoured fashion of young boys world-wide I was sexually obsessed with her.”
The James Ellroy I met was not the psychopath I had read about in Into the Badlands, John Williams’ collection of interviews with American crime novelists. In that book Ellroy is portrayed as a seriously disturbed person who has difficulty separating fact from fiction when talking about his shocking past.
When James Ellroy recently visited England, I attended one of his public appearances.Actually, ‘performance’ might be a better description of what took place. Ellroy needed little encouragement from his interviewer and he frequently gave the audience the opportunity to ask questions. His outspoken replies and entertaining, often slanderous anecdotes were riddled with beatnik phrases like dig it, hep cats, groovy and daddy-o. The thoughtful way in which he spoke about his childhood and other serious issues did not correspond with the description given by John Williams. When I met James Ellroy at his hotel in Bristol, I asked him if he had read the article by Williams. He replied that he could not understand that someone could misjudge him in such a way. Williams was right in two aspects: Ellroy is indeed very tall, and when he speaks about his past he reverts to a well-rehearsed, yet highly intriguing routine.
James Ellroy was born on the 4th of March in 1948, and was raised an only child. His father, fifty years old at the time of his birth, was involved with the movie business, at one point acting as Rita Hayworth’s business manager. Ellroy’s mother, of German descent, was a nurse.
“My parents were very good-looking people. My father liked women; my mother liked booze and men. Parenthood was not their gig. They didn’t neglect me too much—they certainly didn’t abuse me in any way—but they had another agenda and I suspect that most of it was sexual in nature. I was a gifted reader at three. I couldn’t tell time and couldn’t tie my shoes to well—I was this little misanthropic reading geek who escaped into books.”
In 1954 his parents were divorced and four years later James moved with his mother from Santa Monica to El Monte (‘this shit hole, white trash town’) where he went to school. “I smoked a little marijuana and waited to turn into a heroine addict because that happened to Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm [UK / US].”
In June 1958 he had spent a weekend with his father. The event that occurred during the author’s absence is still being used to draw attention to his writing today: “I got to the house and there were cops all over the place. I sensed immediately that my mother was dead. A cop took me inside and said: Son, your mother’s been murdered…”
She had gone out the previous evening and was last been seen leaving a bar with a man and a women. The next day some boy-scouts found her body. Under her overcoat she was nude. Someone had strangled her, but she had not been sexually assaulted. It seemed she tried to fight off her attacker because skin fragments were found embedded under her nails. The crime was never solved. “It was a very ambiguous bereavement,” Ellroy recalls. “My mother had whacked me a couple of times in the preceding months. In time honoured fashion of young boys world-wide I was sexually obsessed with her, but at the time when she died, I wasn’t into her much. She made me get up at seven to go to church, which my father never did. Compared with my father she was a bit of a drag.”
After his mother’s death, James went to live with his father. To the ten-year old boy this man seemed strange. Besides being elderly, he was in poor health, laughed at things that were not funny, and frequently told outrageous lies. It was only recently, when reading a biography about Rita Hayworth, that Ellroy found out that his father really had worked for the actress.
In 1959 Ellroy senior bought his son a copy of The Badge, by Jack Webb (of tv-cop-series Dragnet fame) as a birthday present: “This book—a stupefyingly right-wing paean to the Los Angeles Police Department—contained a haunting ten-page summary of The Black Dahlia murder case.” The Black Dahlia, a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth Short, was the victim in what is probably the most celebrated unsolved homicide in Hollywood history. In January 1947 her body was found nude, chopped in half, on a vacant lot in Los Angeles. For the young James the parallels are obvious. Two beautiful women had been murdered, they were both found nude and neither crime was ever solved. “The two killings merged in my mind and scared the shit out of me. It was as if all thoughts of my mother’s death, which I couldn’t address as this repressed little kid, came out in my fascination with The Black Dahlia. I would have flashes where I would see Elizabeth Short being tortured. I would be afraid of going to sleep at night because I knew I would dream of what was done to her. I read six trillion crime books and I still wanted more. I needed to know why. I wanted to understand the ramifications of crime, to know what psycho-pathology was all about. I had an immense curiosity for police work and anything pertaining to psycho-sexual behaviour. From there my curiosity spiralled to include all of L.A.’s social history during the era of the 1950s and the decade preceding it. I did poorly at school. All I wanted to do was get out, go somewhere, to choke the chicken and read crime novels. As my father grew older I did just that.”
In 1965 James was expelled from school and his father signed for him to join the army at age seventeen. His experiences there in no way matched his expectations and, to get out of his military service, he faked a nervous breakdown. Ellroy moved back in with his father who died of cancer shortly afterwards. “His last words to me were: Son, try to pick up every waitress who serves you. He died about five minutes later.”
In the same straightforward fashion in which Ellroy talks about the death of his parents, he continues to speak about the time after his father passed away. He started drinking, used all the drugs he could lay his hands on and started breaking into houses. He casually mentions that he used the latter experience to sniff women’s under-garments. Though he stresses “it was not for anything serious”, he was sentenced to serve time in prison on numerous occasions. When he did not have anywhere else to stay, he would sleep in the park. It took twelve years before Ellroy realised that, if he did not want to die from drugs or booze, he would have to change his behaviour. Aged twenty-nine he became a caddy at a country club in Los Angeles. He gave up drinking and drugs, worked hard, spent a lot of time reading in the bed in his cheap room, listening to music (Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler) and harbouring ambitious thoughts: James Ellroy wanted to become an important writer.
In 1978 Ellroy briefly took on a job as process-server for an attorney service. The experience gave him the inspiration for his first novel. “Basically I would find people who would be served papers. It was a little taste of being a private-eye and I began blocking out my first novel Brown’s Requiem, which drew heavily on autobiographical elements: my love of classical music, my alcoholism and recent sober state, the old neighbourhood I grew up in, my first generation German-American background, all these things. It’s the first autobiographical novel that writers seem to have to write. I was afraid to write because I was afraid that I would fail, but when I was on the golf course on January 6, 1979, I sent up a payer to my seldom sought Calvinist God and said: ‘God, please let me start on this fucking book tonight.’ God said: ‘Go Big Dog. Go for it. Give us your vision of sleaze and redemption.’ That was it. I started writing the book that night and haven’t stopped since.”
Brown’s Requiem was followed by Clandestine which was based on the murder of his mother. “It was an exercise in writing fiction and broadening my scope as a writer. It became a novel with fictional characters as soon as I picked up a pen to write the outline. If I had it to write all over again, I would not fictionalise it, except for the conclusion. I would write about Genieva Hilliker Ellroy, 1915-1958. I’ve been exploiting my mother’s death for book sales for a number of years now, and I am planning to write a long magazine piece about my mother for GQ magazine. I am going to Los Angeles on the 9th of March to read the homicide file and look at the coroner’s photographs. I want a closure with Genieva Hilliker Ellroy and I want to use it to sell books.”
Though Ellroy appears to be obsessed with book sales, money does not seem to be his main motive. “I don’t want to write books that anyone else writes. I’d rather make less money and write better, more difficult and inaccessible books. Most authors don’t want to work as hard as I do, they would rather write easy books. Frankly, easier books sell better. John Grisham writes an easy book. God bless him. Anybody that writes a book that sells in great numbers, well, I am all for him because it draws people into the bookshop. At least—even if it is a shit book—they are turning the pages and reading the words. They are promoting literacy, which is what we all love.”
After his first two books, James started on his Hopkins-trilogy. His publisher in America asked him to create a character that, like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, could be brought back in an endless number of books.
Ellroy’s Lloyd Hopkins is a violent, womanising homicide-detective who is obsessed with order. He was first introduced in Blood on the Moon and made return appearances in Because the Night and Suicide Hill.
“He is a sexual abuse victim and leads a disordered life. He is really an emotional adolescent, which is something that I see in a lot of my male characters. I think men who engage in violence are men that have never grown up. As enamoured as I am with the male romance, I think a lot of it is just preposterous bullshit. It has driven the world right to the edge of extinction. I mean, it’s not women who created atom bombs, who have waged war on each other for centuries; it’s men and I think Hopkins is an extreme example of that. I still like him as a character, I like him as a man. I like all my characters. I don’t want a police force comprised of what Hopkins is, but I understand how Lloyd Hopkins has evolved. I think that, were I in a situation like that, it might drive me crazy to. I believe policemen should be decent, reasonable, compassionate and law abiding, but they have to withstand superhuman amounts of stress and still retain their sanity. Since America is crazy and out of control right now, I would rather choose for the side of too much authority. I think it is a matter of to what degree. The occasional ass-kicking doesn’t bother me but what happened to Rodney King is appalling. What it comes down to is public accountability.”
The book Silent Terror, which is also known as Killer on the Road, is a first-person account seen through the eyes of a serial killer. This book was also written at the request of his publisher and it appeared just before the market was flooded by books on the same topic.
Ellroy accepted the assignment because, after this book, he wanted to devote himself to writing a novel about the Black Dahlia. He had worked out that the ten-thousand dollars he would be paid would give him approximately six months writing time. “Killer on the Road was an easy book to write because it was loosely plotted. I had seen a couple of serial killer documentaries and just made it up. I let the killer look exactly like me so that, if I ever weaselled my way on to a talk-show, the moderator might think: ‘God, this guy looks just like the serial killer—maybe he is a serial killer’.” The author set Silent Terror in several locales and let his imagination go. “You know how I can write about serial killers and woman stalkers? It’s because I was a benign woman stalker as a kid. All I wanted to do was to ask them for a date and I was to terrified to do even that.”
Ellroy thinks people get a vicarious thrill out of serial killers because, “It’s a horny world and sex and insane people are inextricably linked to love and tender regard for other human beings. Imagine if all human beings could poses any person they wanted for the duration of time they wanted them for, without experiencing any vulnerability and waiting around for their third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth date to go to bed, or hold hands, or French-kiss, or any of that groovy shit, you know. No worrying about safe sex, no diseases, nothing. You stop the person, you capture them, you hold them captive, you torture them, you kill them. That is the sexual power that serial killers have. All these fuckers are sexually and pathologically derived and they can have anybody they want, and there is something seductive about that. Which is why many serial killer books say—and I think this is real misogyny: he loved women. Okay, right away on the cover of that paperback you know this book is going to be written from some bogus heterosexual perspective. Most people are heterosexual, so they are targeting that big market right there. All those semi-psychos, women haters, guys who haven’t had a date in a year and a half, they know they are going to get their rocks off with this book. Personally I am sick to death of serial killer books by now. The only guy who should be allowed to write them is Thomas Harris and I’ll let him do one more before I start to snore.”
Considering that the death of Ellroy’s mother still plays a major role in his life, and that Los Angeles has had a big influence on his writing, it seems justified that his breakthrough came about with The Black Dahlia, the first part of the L.A. Quartet.
He had considered writing about the Black Dahlia for some time, but the book True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne held him back. In Dunne’s book, published in 1977, the Black Dahlia murder case was renamed the Virgin-Tramp murder case. He used very few facts which he acknowledges in the foreword.
“I thought: Jesus, John Gregory Dunne wrote this book, nominally based on the Black Dahlia murder case, now I can’t write my book. Well, au contraire. When a book is successful, publishers want lots more of the same. So I finally realised what I had to do was to write my novel The Black Dahlia, adhere to all the facts of the case, rigorously, before digressing fictionally and write a completely different book. And I did it.”
After The Black Dahlia his publisher wanted him to write a fourth Hopkins book.
“I went to the extent of outlining it. It was to be Lloyd Hopkins in the porno-underworld. Lloyd Hopkins sexually obsessed with his wife Janice, being a good dog and not chasing women. Even though there is a woman that is throwing herself at him, he’s a good dog and he doesn’t chase back. It was to be called The Cold Six Thousand [and became the second in the Underworld USA trilogy]. I ultimately used a lot of the porno stuff in L.A. Confidential. I didn’t really want to go back and write contemporary novels. I wanted to make an effort to consciously eclipse the force of The Black Dahlia. I would have to go on from this point and make each successive book, darker, deeper, richer, more dense, more complex, more emotionally resonant. I also wanted to continue my story of Los Angeles back then. That’s when I conceived the notion for The L.A. Quartet. I made up ninety-five percent. I only formally researched The Black Dahlia, which was based on an actual case. It is factually valid as far as the circumstances of the case go. The characters are mostly fictional. My second novel in the Quartet, The Big Nowhere, is about the red scare in the movie business. I skim-jobbed half a book on the red scare and got bored with it. I researched, through newspaper clippings, the bloody Christmas police scandal which forms the prologue of L.A. Confidential the third book. I did absolutely no research on White Jazz.”
Ellroy has decided to leave L.A. behind. He says he needs to go on, to readdress his consciousness. In a series of crime novels he wants to recreate the America of the twentieth century. His aim is to cover a greater diversity of human motive and a wider diversity of locales. All this with one predominating theme: politics as crime, the private nightmare of public policy.
“The book that I am writing now, American Tabloid, is the complete story of the Kennedy brothers. John Kennedy’s rise and fall, Robert Kennedy’s war on organised crime, Carlo Marcello, Sam Giancana, Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, Howard Hughes, scandal-sheet journalism, sex shake-downs, the underbelly of the Kennedy administration. The sequel that I will write to this book, Blood’s a Rover [ultimately becoming the final instalment of the Underworld USA trilogy], will be on the same scale. It is about Howard Hughes and Vegas, heroin, Vietnam. The final volume will cover the years up to Watergate. There will come a time when I hit the outer reaches of complexity and shear plot scope, but then I’ll just deepen in other fashions. I will look for something else. Still, I expect that recreating America in the 20th century will take me at least 20 years.’
[A haunting image of the young James Ellroy, just moments after hearing of his mother’s death, appeared on the cover of cover of issue 46 of Granta magazine. The issue is dedicated to crime fiction.]
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1994.