Ellroy, James 1948-
ELLROY, James 1948-
PERSONAL: Born March 4, 1948, Los Angeles, CA; son of Geneva (a nurse; maiden name, Hilliker) Ellroy; married Mary Doherty, 1988 (marriage ended); married Helen Knode (a journalist and author).
ADDRESSES: Home—New Canaan, CT. Agent—Nat Sobel, Sobel, Weber Associates, Inc., 146 East 19th St., New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Writer. Worked at a variety of jobs, including as a golf caddy in California and New York, 1977-84. Military service: U.S. Army, 1965.
AWARDS, HONORS: Edgar Award nomination, Mystery Writers of America, 1982, for Clandestine; Prix Mystere Award, 1990, for The Big Nowhere.
"L.A. QUARTET" CRIME NOVELS
The Black Dahlia, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1987.
The Big Nowhere, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1988.
L.A. Confidential, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1990.
White Jazz, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
Brown's Requiem, Avon (New York, NY), 1981.
Clandestine, Avon (New York, NY), 1982.
Blood on the Moon (also see below), Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Because the Night (also see below), Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Killer on the Road, Avon (New York, NY), 1986.
Suicide Hill (also see below), Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Silent Terror, introduction by Jonathan Kellerman, Avon (New York, NY), 1986.
Hollywood Nocturnes, Otto Penzler Books (New York, NY), 1994.
American Tabloid, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
L.A. Noir, (contains Blood on the Moon, Because the Night, and Suicide Hill), Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1998.
The Cold Six Thousand, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
Destination: Morgue!: L.A. Tales, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Police Gazette, Knopf (New York, NY), forthcoming.
(Author of introduction) Jim Thompson, Heed the Thunder, Armchair Detective Library (New York, NY), 1991.
My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Crimewave: Reportage and Fiction from the Underside of L.A., Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
(Author of afterword) Bill O'Reilly, The No-Spin Zone: Confrontations with the Powerful and Famous in America, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2001.
(Editor, with Otto Penzler) The Best American Mystery Stories, 2002, American Library Association (New York, NY), 2002.
ADAPTATIONS: Blood on the Moon was filmed as Cop, Atlantic, 1988. L.A. Confidential was filmed in 1997 by New Regency, directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Danny DeVito, and Kim Basinger. L.A. Noir is available as an audio-book, Books on Tape, 1998. Robert Greenwald directed James Ellroy's Los Angeles as a mini-series containing characters from Ellroy's novels, as well as a film version of My Dark Places; the 2003 United Artists film Dark Blue was adapted from Ellroy's story by David Ayer, directed by Ron Shelton; The Black Dahlia was adapted for a film directed by Brian De-Palma; a film version of White Jazz was in production.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A script for a film about Hollywood lawyer Sidney Korshak titled The Man Who Kept Secrets.
SIDELIGHTS: James Ellroy is a prominent crime novelist who has won acclaim for his vivid portraits of Los Angeles, California's seamier aspects. Ellroy himself spent many years on the Los Angeles streets. After an arduous childhood—his parents divorced when he was four, his mother was murdered six years later, and his father died seven years after that—Ellroy took to the streets. Having already been expelled from both high school for excessive truancy and the military for faking a nervous breakdown, he turned to crime, committing petty burglaries to fund his increasing alcohol dependency. From 1965 to 1977 Ellroy was arrested for such crimes as drunkenness, shoplifting, and trespassing on approximately thirty occasions. Twelve times he was convicted and was imprisoned for eight months.
In 1977 Ellroy's life changed radically after he was hospitalized with double pneumonia. Profoundly shaken by his brush with death, he entered an Alcoholics Anonymous program and then managed, through a friend, to obtain employment as a caddy at posh Hollywood golf courses. By this time Ellroy was already determined to pursue a literary career. Before he had been hospitalized, he had spent many hours in public libraries, where he drank discreetly while poring through twentieth-century American literature. He also read the more than two hundred crime novels he had stolen from various markets and bookstores, and it was the crime genre that eventually enticed him into commencing his own literary career.
In 1979, while continuing with his job as a caddy, Ellroy began writing his first book. The result, after more than ten months of steady writing in longhand, was Brown's Requiem, the story of a private investigator who uncovers a deadly band of extortionists roaming the streets of Los Angeles.
Brown's Requiem won Ellroy immediate acceptance from an agent who in turn quickly managed to place the manuscript with a publisher. Ellroy's actual earnings from the novel, though, were not enough to support him, and so he remained a golf caddy while he produced a second novel, Clandestine. This novel, in which a former police officer tracks down his exlover's killer, received a nomination for the crime genre's prestigious Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Ellroy followed Clandestine with Blood on the Moon, the story of two brilliant men—a somewhat unstable police detective, Lloyd Hopkins, and a psychopathic murderer—who clash in Los Angeles. In 1984, the year that this novel appeared in print, Ellroy finally managed to leave his caddying job and devote himself fully to writing. Among the next few novels he published were Because the Night, Killer on the Road, and Suicide Hill, the last in which Lloyd Hopkins, the temperamental protagonist of the earlier Blood on the Moon, opposes a vicious bank robber.
In 1987 Ellroy produced The Black Dahlia, the first volume in his "L.A. Quartet" series. The Black Dahlia is based on the actual 1947 unsolved murder of prostitute Elizabeth Short, whose severed body was found on a Los Angeles street. The murder bears similarities to that of Ellroy's own mother. Like the Black Dahlia case, the murder of Ellroy's mother was never solved, but in Ellroy's novel he proposes a possible solution to the Black Dahlia mystery. "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 to the crime consistent with those facts." Haldane added that in tracing the Black Dahlia case Ellroy "conducts an uncompromising tour of the obscene, violent, gritty, obsessive, darkly sexual world" that existed within Los Angeles during the 1940s, "complete with names and places."
Ellroy continued to chart the Los Angeles underworld in The Big Nowhere, in which two criminal investigations converge with shocking results. The novel takes place during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when fear of the communist threat in the United States was widespread. In one investigation, a deputy sheriff probes a rash of killings in the homosexual community. The other case involves a city investigator's efforts to further his career by exposing a band of alleged communists circulating within the film industry. The two cases become one when the ambitious investigator employs the deputy as a decoy to lure an influential leftist known as the Red Queen. This collaborative operation leads to unexpected discoveries.
The Big Nowhere won Ellroy substantial recognition as a proficient writer. According to London Times writer Peter Guttridge, it established its author as one "among that handful of crime writers whose work is regarded as literature." Among the novel's enthusiasts was Bruce Cook, who proclaimed in the Washington Post Book World that Ellroy has produced "a first-rate crime novel, a violent picture in blood-red and grays, set against a fascinating period background."
Ellroy realized further acclaim with L.A. Confidential, in which three police officers cross paths while conducting their affairs in 1950s Los Angeles. The protagonists here are wildly different: Bud White is a brutish, excessively violent law enforcer; Trashcan Vincennes is a corrupt narcotics investigator; and Ed Exley is a rigid, politically ambitious sergeant. The three men come together while probing a bizarre incident in which several coffee shop patrons were gunned down. The ensuing plot, reported Kevin Moore in Chicago's Tribune Books, "plays itself out with all the impact—and excess—of a shotgun blast." People reviewer Lorenzo Carcaterra judged that L.A. Confidential is "violently unsettling" and "ugly yet engrossing." White Jazz, the concluding volume in the "L.A. Quartet," appeared in 1992.
After completing his four-book series, Ellroy decided upon a change in course. "I think," he told Guttridge in the London Times, "it's time I moved beyond Los Angeles." Ellroy added, however, that he planned to continue to pursue what he called his "one goal—to be the greatest crime writer of all time."
Move beyond Los Angeles he did in his next novel, American Tabloid, an ambitious, tightly plotted narrative of national and international conspiracy and crime in the 1960s that culminates with the great "unsolved" American crime: the Kennedy assassination. Two FBI agents and a CIA operative make up the three central characters through which Ellroy spins this complex, disturbing, and visceral tale of American history "from the bottom up," in the words of a Booklist critic. American Tabloid, rife with Ellroy's signature staccato language and over-the-top violence, sold well and invited positive reviews and colorful critical descriptions. A contributor to Booklist characterized the novel as being about the "most potent drug of all"—power. "It's as if Ellroy injects us with a mainline pop of the undiluted power that surges through the veins of his obsessed characters," the critic added. In Time, Paul Gray called American Tabloid "American history as well as Hellzapoppin, a long slapstick routine careening around a manic premise: What if the fabled American innocence is all shuck and jive?" Gray went on to praise the novel as "a big, boisterous, rude and shameless reminder of why reading can be so engrossing and so much fun."
With his next project, 1996's "crime memoir" My Dark Places, Ellroy returns not only to Los Angeles, but also to his own unresolved past. With his early novelThe Black Dahlia, Ellroy had attempted to put to rest questions about his mother's death, but here he sets out to solve his mother's murder himself. He enlists the help of a retired Los Angeles police officer and starts retracing the evidence of the almost thirty-year-old crime. Ellroy reports the facts of the investigation in great detail, using a style similar to that of his crime novels, a decision critics found only partially successful. A writer for Kirkus Reviews described the language as "a punchy but monotonous rhythm that's as relentless as a jackhammer," while Bruce Jay Friedman in the New York Times Review compared it to something that "might've been fired out of a riveting gun." Ellroy never finds the murderer, but he does speculate on the impact of his mother's death on his character and career and learns more about her life. Although a Kirkus Reviews critic warned that "Those expecting an autobiographical expose of the writer's psychological clockwork will feel stonewalled by macho reserve," Friedman found the psychological dimension satisfying. "All in all, a rough and strenuously involving book," he commented in his review of My Dark Places. "Early on, Mr. Ellroy makes a promise to his dead mother that seems maudlin at first: 'I want to give you breath.' But he's done just that and—on occasion—taken ours away."
After My Dark Places, Elroy publically stated that he was no longer interested in the genre. "I'm not writing crime fiction anymore," he told Jeff Guinn for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. "I've moved on with what I wanted to do. I wanted to write fiction about history, to have rewritten history to my own specifications." Despite disappointing crime fans, he kept true to his word; his 2001 novel, The Cold Six Thousand, is a follow-up to American Tabloid and the second in the projected "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy about politics and racism in America during the 1960s and 1970s. The Cold Six Thousand covers the years 1963 through 1968 and includes such historical figures as Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Probing the dark side of America, Ellroy tells of Hoover's hatred of King, a Central Intelligence Agency that smuggles dope, and the mess of the Vietnam War. The story focuses primarily on a Las Vegas police officer named Wayne Tedrow, Jr., who inadvertently becomes involved in the cover up of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Through the course of the novel Tedrow becomes involved in various unsavory organizations, including the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan, as Ellroy offers his vision of an America that is anything but innocent. Although Tedrow is the novel's "hero," by the end he has become a corrupted, ruthless, and vengeful killer who plays a role in the assassination of King. Commenting on the book during an interview with Dorman T. Shindler for Writer, Ellroy noted: "The Cold Six Thousand is a story about violent men in a violent time doing terrible, violent things. This is the epic of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. This is the humanity of bad white men."
Reviewing The Cold Six Thousand for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, Fred Grimm wondered if perhaps "Ellroy was outdone this time by wider ambition." The novel's look at the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and of King "offers only another variation of theories explored by 10,000 wild-eyed paranoids," the critic added. A Publishers Weekly contributor, however, praised the novel as "a career performance," and went on to note that, "With Ellroy's ice-pick declarative prose . . . plus his heart-trembling, brain-searing subject matter, readers will feel kneed, stomped upon and then kicked-right up into the maw of hard truth." Thomas Auger, writing in the Library Journal, called the book "readable yet complex in its character development and critical examination of U.S. public policy." Paul Gray wrote in Time that The Cold Six Thousand is an "exceedingly nasty piece of work," and went on to note: "Yet it is often funny . . . and traces an unexpectedly moral arc through all its mayhem. Pick it up if you dare; put it down if you can."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 347-348.
Armchair Detective, spring, 1987, p. 206; winter, 1991, p. 31.
Booklist, January 15, 1995.
Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 1987, p. B5.
Interview, December, 1996, p. 70.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1996.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 30, 2001, Fred Grimm, review of The Cold Six Thousand, p. K7849; June 13, 2001, Jeff Guinn, "Political History, as Told by James Ellroy," p. K5306.
Library Journal, April 15, 2001, Thomas Auger, review of The Cold Six Thousand, p. 131.
Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1987; May 27, 1990.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 3, 1984, p. 18; September 13, 1987, p. 16; October 9, 1988, p. 12; July 8, 1990, p. 8.
Nation, December 2, 1996, p. 25.
New Statesman, June 19, 1987, p. 31; January 22, 1988, p. 33.
New York Times, November 3, 2003, Virginia Heffernan, "A Writer, Hard-boiled and Shaped by Murder," p. E8.
New York Times Book Review, July 22, 1984, p. 32; July 6, 1986, p. 21; November 8, 1987, p. 62; October 9, 1988, p. 41; September 3, 1989, p. 20; July 15, 1990, p. 26; June 30, 1991, p. 32; November 24, 1996.
Observer, May 13, 1984, p. 23.
People, December 14, 1987; July 2, 1990; November 25, 1996, p. 93.
Publishers Weekly, June 15, 1990, pp. 53-54; May 21, 2001, review of The Cold Six Thousand, p. 83.
Spectator, July 21, 1984, p. 29.
Time, April 10, 1995, p. 74; November 25, 1996, p. 115; May 21, 2003, Paul Gray, review of The Cold Six Thousand, p. 90.
Times (London, England), November 10, 1990.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 3, 1989, p. 5; June 10, 1990, p. 1.
Washington Post Book World, October 23, 1988, p. 10.
West Coast Review of Books, January, 1983, p. 43; September, 1983, p. 20; September, 1986, p. 27.
Writer, September, 2001, Dorman T. Shindler, "Fierce Ambition," interview with Ellroy, p. 28.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (December 9, 1996), interview with Ellroy.*