James Ellroy (1948 – ) is best understood as an historical writer who specializes in evoking the sights, sounds, dialogue, and feel of hard-boiled Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s, a period in which his own personality was formed through family tragedy. Though he has recently written about other places and periods, his best work, known as the “L.A. Quartet,” derives from the famous Black Dahlia murder case, which was eerily parallel to the murder of Ellroy’s own mother.
The only son a German father and Dutch mother, Ellroy was born in L.A. His parents divorced when he was six, and Ellroy lived with his mother, who “drank Early Times bourbon and chased men.” 1 At ten, when he chose to live with his father, his mother slapped him, and he called her a whore. Three months later, in June 1958, he went to visit, but she was dead. She had been strangled after leaving a bar with a man and woman. The next year his father gave him The Badge by Jack Webb, which included a summary of the Black Dahlia case. Elizabeth Short, a starlet and sometime prostitute, had been found naked in 1947, tortured and mutilated, her body cut completely in half. Neither murder case was ever solved. But Ellroy was so hypnotized that around 1960 he began to visit the crime scenes, have dreams and visions of Short, and to visit her grave. He says that then he began to read crime fiction.
At seventeen, Ellroy, expelled from high school for truancy, joined the U.S. Army, but he was kicked out after faking a nervous breakdown. His father died and Ellroy hit the streets, stealing and drinking, using a variety of drugs, sleeping in parks and dumpsters. Between 1965 and 1977 he was arrested over a dozen times, convicted twelve times, and imprisoned for eight months. His chief offenses were breaking and entering, shoplifting, and trespassing. Felled by near-fatal double pneumonia in 1977, Ellroy joined Alcoholics Anonymous and found a job as a golf caddy.
“Caddying was good tax-free cash and allowed me to get home by 2 p.m. and write books,” Ellroy said. “I caddied right up to the sale of my fifth book.” 2 Having read, by his estimate, over two hundred crime novels, Ellroy was able to condense their elements in ten months of longhand writing to Brown’s Requiem (1981). His next novel, Clandestine (1982), concerns an ex-cop who tracks down his ex-lover’s killer. It received an award nomination and revealed some autobiographical touches, as well as Ellroy working on his major theme. He followed, however, with three “Lloyd Hopkins” cop novels — Blood on the Moon (1984), Because the Night (1984), Suicide Hill (1986) — and a first person serial killer narrative, Silent Terror (1986), somewhat in the Jim Thompson mode.
His major work is the “L.A. Quartet,” of which the first novel, The Black Dahlia (1987), is the best known. It treats two cops, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, both boxers, who share a girl-friend and an ambition to solve the Black Dahlia case: “It was a book I had been waiting almost thirty years to write,” he said, 3 An extraordinary recreation of L.A. police politics, racial and sexual attitudes, and slang of the 1940s, “Ellroy’s novel is true to the facts as they are known,” wrote David Haldane in the Los Angeles Times, “but it provides a fictional solution … consistent with those facts.” 4 Ellroy continued to “conduct an uncompromising tour of the obscene, violent, gritty, obsessive, darkly sexual” L.A. underworld in The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992), a stream-of-consciousness tour de force.
Although the L.A. setting was made famous by Raymond Chandler, Ellroy says that after an early infatuation with the author, his allegiance changed to Dashiell Hammett, whom he calls “the great realist.” “I don’t think [Chandler] knew people anywhere near as well as Dashiell Hammett.” Joseph Wambaugh, the L.A. policeman turned novelist, “is a big influence too.” 5 Ellroy also draws on the pulp tradition – his fascination with sexual behaviors and boxing recalls Spillane (and Hammett in his short stories) as well as Thompson.
Ellroy’s recent work varies. Dick Contino’s Blues (1994) is the tragi-comic true life story of an Italian accordion star in the 1950s. Influenced by Don DeLillo’s Libra, Ellroy next wrote a massive historic novel on the 1960s, American Tabloid (1995). With this he claims to have left the gestalt of L.A. in the 1940s. “I have stopped writing psychosexual plots,” he says. “It’s the covenant of consciousness.” 6 American Tabloid is the first of a planned trilogy on “Underworld USA,” but it was interrupted by My Dark Places (1996), which concerns the factual case of his mother’s killing. Ellroy and retired L.A. detective Bill Stoner investigated the case, which is still open. In 2001 Ellroy published The Cold Six Thousand and in 2004 Destination: Morgue. He was formerly married to Helen Knode, who authored the 2003 novel The Ticket Out.
It’s easy to guess wrong about Ellroy personally: he does not drink or smoke, and he goes to bed early. He lives by choice in Mission Hills, Kansas, with his second wife, feminist author and critic Helen Knode. He calls producer Quentin Tarantino “a fatuous child” and he says that “Reservoir Dogs is garbage and the forty minutes of Pulp Fiction that I saw is the most excruciatingly naïve shtick, boring tedium that I’ve ever endured.” In fact, Ellroy is a proponent of gun control, his favorite recreation listening to Beethoven. 7
- Brown’s Requiem (1981)
- Clandestine (1982)
- Killer on the Road (originally published as Silent Terror) (1986)
Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy
(also published in an omnibus edition as ‘L.A. Noir’ (1991))
Underworld USA Trilogy
The Second L.A. Quartet
1 James Ellroy, interviewed by Paul Duncan, “Call Me Dog,” The Third Degree: Crime Writers in Conversation ( Harpenden, Great Britain: No Exit Press, 1997) and The Richmond Review, 1997, http://www.demon.co.uk/review/features/ellint01.html , p.2. 2 Ibid., 4. 3 Ibid., http://www.demon.co.uk/review/features/ellint02.html, 2. 4 Haldane on Barnes and Noble Author Biography Page, provided by Gale Research, 1999, 5 Ellroy, in Duncan, Part 1, p. 7. 6 Ellroy, in Duncan, Part 3, p. 2. 7 Ellroy, in Duncan, Part 1, p. 9.