In 1956, James Ellroy was still waiting for the Second World War to end. ‘My mother said, “Sonny, the war ended three years before you were born,” he recalls. ‘I didn’t believe her then, and I still don’t.’
The source of his confusion was a pile of wartime Life magazines in the closet of the family’s LA home. ‘I was always looking at pictures in magazines, even before I learned to read,’ says Ellroy. ‘It was all looking back to some earlier time: the intersection of history and crime. In my imagination, very early on, I was juxtaposing dramatic domestic events with tumultuous love affairs going on against the backdrop of big history.’
More than 60 years on, the so-called ‘demon dog of American crime fiction (actually a very genial fellow in the flesh) is still mining those heady days of noir-era Los Angeles, where corrupt cops and femme fatales mingle with hoodlums and Hollywood starlets in dense, doorstop tales of greed, corruption, murder and lust.
The burning fuse lit by those Life magazines was ignited on a June Sunday in 1958, when the 10-year-old James returned home to be told by a policeman in the yard that his mother had been murdered – an act of shocking violence that would cast a long shadow over his life and work.
Four years earlier, Jean and Armand Ellroy – ‘a great-looking cheap couple’, according to their son – had fought their way through a bitter divorce. Seduced by his father’s lies, and consumed by a mixture of ‘hatred and lust’ for his mother, Ellroy had literally prayed for her death. So when it happened (she was found dumped by the roadside, having been sexually assaulted and strangled by a killer who was never caught), he held himself responsible, his initial relief giving way to decades of guilt and remorse.
As a teenage loner, living in squalid poverty with his father (a down-on-his luck former business manager of Rita Hayworth) in a “crummy shack” with a dog that wasn’t house-trained, he drifted into petty crime, including breaking into the homes of his female classmates and sniffing their underwear. He was also a peeping Tom, with a fondness for prep school girls (‘and particularly their mothers’).
Aged 13, he briefly joined the American Nazi party. (‘I was a kid, looking for trouble,’ he tells Weekend. ‘And boy I got the attention. I got my ass kicked, and rightly so.’) Later, he drank heavily, took drugs and spent time either sleeping rough, or in jail. It was only when he developed an abscess on his lung ‘the size of a man’s fist’ that he quit drinking and started taking his calling as a writer seriously, setting out on a road that would lead the New York Times to hail him as ‘the author of some of the most powerful crime novels ever written’.
Having already published six books while working as a golf caddy, he achieved a major breakthrough with 1987’s The Black Dahlia, a fictionalised account of the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring Los Angeles actress on whose death he had long been fixated. The first of his celebrated LA Quartet – which also includes LA Confidential, later adapted into an Oscar-winning film – it’s an explicit example of how, through his writing, he has spent ‘half a century in address of my mother’s memory’. (He dedicated the book to her, calling it ‘this valediction in blood’.)
‘If you needed to programme an ideal person to write the books I’ve written, then just take a look at my biography,’ he says. ‘James Ellroy was born in LA in 1948. There’s my mother’s death, my misspent youth – all of it. But I think a lot of biography distorts,’ he adds, claiming that, perhaps even more important than all that, is the fact ‘I always had my snout in a book’.
His latest opus is This Storm, the sophomore entry in his second LA Quartet, depicting younger versions of many of his best-known characters during the Second World War. Written in his trademark, hardboiled style – short, staccato sentences mixing hepcat jazz talk with police jargon and contemporary street slang – it opens on New Year’s Eve 1941, when a biblical rainstorm heralds a torrent of carnage and corruption taking in post-Pearl Harbor anti-Japanese hysteria, Nazi gold, fifth columnists, Mexican drug cartels and war profiteers, set in a town of mobsters and movie stars that kept on partying hard, even as they blacked out the lights on Sunset Strip.
‘You have these horny, patriotic, driven, lonely, haunted people going to these all-night places,’ says Ellroy. ‘The war has storm-tossed them all together. They’re volatile, they’re libertines, they’re eroticised, they’re corrupt in different ways. It makes me want to hop in my time machine and head back there,' he laughs.
Indeed, so keen is he to immerse himself in his sprawling, operatic, historical universe – what he calls his ‘imaginative continuum’, in which characters both real and imagined weave in and out of narratives across interlocking series’ of novels totalling thousands of pages – that he largely eschews technology (and, indeed, much of the modern world), preferring to write his books by hand. “Though I did break down in the 80s and by a fax,” he notes, drily.
He doesn’t own a TV, but Helen – ‘who’s my second ex-wife and my girlfriend’ (it’s complicated) – has one which he sometimes watches. The pair are neighbours in the same Denver apartment block, Ellroy having much less desire to inhabit the LA of 2019 than the LA of 1942. ‘It’s seductiveness wore out during the years of my divorce,’ he explains. ‘Physically it’s untenable now, it’s grossly overpopulated now, there are too many cars. So yeah, I’m happy to be out of LA.’
In fact life, he says, has never been better. ‘I’m 71, and healthy – armed for bears, as they say. I’m a hellhound, stalking the moors. And not the pretty moor, like Dartmoor, but the bleak, endless moors around Leeds and Bradford.’
Perhaps surprisingly, for someone whose work is deeply rooted in American history, Ellroy turns out to be quite the anglophile, describing the Yorkshire Dales as ‘as starkly beautiful a place as there is on this Earth’, and claiming to have eaten ‘the best cheeseburger I ever had’ in Chagford, Devon. He’s looking forward to his forthcoming UK book tour (‘the British are the best readers, they always turn up for me’), where he’ll also be hooking up with his friend, the artist Ray Richardson, whose work regularly features an English Bull Terrier. ‘That’s the canine embodiment of me,’ he says. ‘Every male bull terrier I’ve ever met has been fixated on human women. I’ve always written about women ardently, passionately, and what I believe to be truthfully.’
He once claimed that ‘everything I do is so women will love me’. Is that still the case? ‘Well I’m back with Helen and I’m very happy,’ he laughs. ‘It’s hard not to play to a woman in the audience. I’ve learned to put a leash on that. But I’ve always had a decent code of conduct with women.’
As for his mother’s murder – which he later worked, with little success, as a cold case investigation with LA detective Bill Stoner – it seems he may finally have reached a resolution (he hates the word closure) in what he calls ‘this oedipal drama of mine’.
‘It’s culminated in This Storm with the depiction of Joan Conville,’ he says of one of the book’s most vivid characters, a defrocked Navy lieutenant. ‘That’s a hocked-up version of my mother, and consciously so. The big red-haired nurse. You know, I like big red-haired women in general. What’s not to like, right?
‘The facts of my mother’s life that I laced into Joan’s narrative – I think that’s the final nod to my mother. You know what? That’s it. I can really take this no further.’
Does he still feel that her death was in some way his fault?
‘No,’ he says. ‘Time and the human will to be happy can conquer a great deal. I have a very sturdy will to be happy.’
As a Christian, Ellroy believes he’ll see his mother again. As to whether she’ll approve of the unorthodox way he has chosen to honour her memory in print… ‘One hopes, huh?’ he laughs.
While that chapter may be closing, he’s still got plenty more stories to tell. And even though his books are often populated by terrible people doing unspeakable things, he knows that, in his own way, he’s driven by a yearning nostalgia.
‘I’m always looking back to some time and place that’s out of reach, and grasping at it, because I’ve lost it,’ he reflects. ‘ I think it’s the human being’s general attempt to freeze time, because time is all we have, and time continues, and renders all of us to earthly dust. It’s gone. Over and out.’
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 30 May, 2019
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