James Ellroy: The ‘Demon Dog’ of Crime Writing

Oct 13, 2009 - by Patrick Quinn - 0 Comments

James Ellroy

James Ellroy

Ellroy, the author of major crime novels such as L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia and his non-fiction account of his search for his mother's killer, My Dark Places, is a fascinating story himself.

by Patrick Quinn

Every dog has his day … and James Ellroy is certainly having his. But he doesn’t wear an Ivy League stamp of approval – or frankly even that of a small town high. This man went to the school of hard knocks. He learned through tragedy … which led to obsession, thieving and even drugs … which led to a collection of best-selling crime novels and a home in Mission Hills (a wealthy suburb of Kansas City).

Let us first put out the Dog. Dog – AKA the Mad Dog of Crime Fiction, AKA Barko – is the public persona of novelist James Ellroy, who quietly moved to Kansas City in the summer of 1995.

The nickname dates from Ellroy’s famously troubled childhood. There are many, many published descriptions of Dog, even a documentary film about Dog, but for the purpose of introduction we will reproduce Kansas City Star book review editor George Gurley’s straightforward description of the performing Dog, taken from his account of Ellroy’s reading at the Writer’s Place last June. Ellroy was promoting his thirteenth book, My Dark Places, an autobiographical account of his mother’s unsolved 1958 murder and his 1994 reinvestigation of the case:

Wearing one of his trademark pineapple shirts, legs spread as if to brace himself for a physical struggle, Ellroy introduced himself with a stream of gaudy profanities and taboo sexual images in doggerel. Addressing his audience as "Hep cats," he howled like a coyote, frowned with menace and gestured dramatically. "These books are incendiary," he said reciting a list of his titles. "These books can cure AIDS and cancer. If you buy five copies of my books, you will be able to have unlimited sex with each and every person on this planet you choose every night of your life." He identified Barko, the hound in his familiar publicity photos, as the true author of his works, as well as the paramour of various celebrities and the assassin of John F. Kennedy,…

Gurley went on to suggest the reading may have been "the most unusual event in Writer’s Place history," which says more about the venue than the performer. Dog was doing his old tricks that day. His shtick is well-known in the book world. Readers seem to like it because it furthers the notion that Ellroy’s dark, often horrific novels are the product of a dark and horrific person; many readers leave his readings with the feeling they’ve brushed against the Beast in the flesh. Publishers like it because it sells books – a lot of books. Dog likes it because he likes to bark, often literally. His phone messages usually end with "Woof-woof, Daddy-o."

He’s a big Dog, tall, lean and energetic, almost 50, with close-cropped hair and small, wire-rimmed glasses that make him look like an oversize sinister accountant. Dog loves to shock. Dog reduces culture to unmentionables. Dog says things like, "I consider the history of 20th-century America to be the history of the crimes of bad white men, and I want to celebrate those men."

Bill Stoner, the retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office homicide detective who partnered up with Dog for the murder reinvestigation, has seen the performing Dog’s effect on audiences several times. The two men are now close friends. "Some people probably think he’s a pervert or a crazy man," says Stoner, who disagrees with both estimations but evinces a measured understanding of the latter. Dog is uninterested whether or not his listeners realize how much of the routine is sincere and how much of it is gimmick. The performance would be a failure if it didn’t offend someone in the audience, and it’s rarely a failure. Dog doesn’t care. Dog just barks and moves on.

Dog is an identity Ellroy slips into with the ease he dons one of his loud Hawaiian shirts. It is composed of equal parts attitude, irony, self-promotion and carefully honed teasing, all spiced with a little ham. The performance is as tightly scripted as any of Ellroy’s novels. The parts not deliberately shocking are designed to remind the audience that they are watching not a freak show but a reading by an extremely successful author published by Alfred A. Knopf, that most literary of imprints. His last novel, American Tabloid, was named 1995’s novel of the year by TIME magazine. He’s regarded over most of Europe of a sort of noir cultural demigod. In recent months the show has unfailingly included mention of the soon-to-be released LA Confidential, director Curtis Hansen’s (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The River Wild) big-budget feature film of Ellroy’s novel of the same name with a cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito.

The Dog Show has been so successful that sometimes those titillated readers walking out of the readings – usually with just-purchased books under their arms – take with them the impression that Barko actually writes the books, which is quite mistaken. Barko just sells them, and as the books grow ever more substantial and successful there are indications that Ellroy is prepared to occasionally muzzle the hound. Though the inner demons may rage unabated, these days Dog is not quite so quick to loose the leash. "Maybe I’m growing more mature," Ellroy concedes with a hint of a grin. "I’m trying to tone it down a little. I don’t call Quentin Tarantino (expletive deleted) anymore." Woof-woof.

James Ellroy is more closely identified with Los Angeles than any writer since Raymond Chandler. Nearly all of his writing prior to American Tabloid is set in Los Angeles, mostly in the rough, racist, pre-Miranda Los Angeles of the decade following the Second World War. His four novels immediately preceding American TabloidThe Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz – are collectively known as the LA Quartet. They comprise a dark and obsessive 1950s anti-history of his hometown. His profile in southern California is immense. Framed Ellroy cover stories from LA Weekly and Orange Coast hang on the walls of his workroom, and My Dark Places appeared on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list almost the instant the book came off the presses.

Ellroy left Los Angeles more than a decade ago and says that he will never live there again. Today he makes his home in Mission Hills, in a large and elegant house built of fine old brick that looks like an eighteenth century English cathedral rectory, and he insists that he will spend the rest of his life there. He calls the house "a nice crib." The serenely affluent quiet of the neighborhood is broken only by the chirping of well-behaved birds and the buzz of a riding lawn mower across the street. It looks like the home of a staid and substantial Kansas City burgher, and Ellroy insists that’s exactly what it is. "People confuse me with my books," the novelist says placidly. "I’m a square. I rarely go out. I have very little connection with or interest in pop culture. I live a quiet life with my wife, and that’s the way I like it. I am the most well-adjusted person I know. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I don’t chase women. I work out every day. I recently stopped eating meat."

He is extremely comfortable in interviews. "I love being interviewed," he says candidly. "I love promoting my books. I’m good at it and I work hard at it. I do 200 interviews a year and have for six or seven years."

In all of them he draws sharp distinctions between himself and the academics, rock ‘n’ rollers, skatekids and Hollywood figures who were first to champion his darkly obsessive books. He detests rock ‘n’ roll and is bored by most modern filmmaking. He is an avid and knowledgeable boxing fan but otherwise without interest in sports; he thinks the Chiefs and the Royals "need to find some cooler names for their teams." He has a comprehensive knowledge of the history of American crime and is pleased that his new home has a rich criminal history. (The first draft of American Tabloid included a Kansas City backstory built around the Greenlease kidnapping of the 1950s that failed to make it into the final manuscript.)

He is married to the writer and critic Helen Knode, whom he refers to as "hyper-brilliant" and who is the bridge that brought him here; her mother lives here and he discovered Kansas City on their first trip to visit her. That first day, he and Knode drove around the city sightseeing, and in less than an hour he told his wife that he wanted to spend the rest of his life here. He has told interviewers that he loves the city because it is a "vacuum," a characterization that does not sit well with some locals. "I don’t think everyone understands what I meant by that," he says with exasperation. "I meant that it’s not Los Angeles, that it’s not a place wrapped up in bullshit pop culture. It’s possible to have a real life here."

He has arrived. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, novelist William Vollman called American Tabloid "A supremely controlled work of art." The Los Angeles Times said of him, "He’s not merely a great hard-boiled crime fiction writer. Let’s take the leap; James Ellroy is developing into one of the great American writers of our time."

He has conquered detractors. A review of White Jazz, a "dark, difficult" British documentary film about him, says, "At first, his ego, his crudeness and his twistedness are repellent," but concludes that he is "…one of the last truth-seekers of the post-modern age." Salon, the painfully arty online literary magazine, savaged My Dark Places in a review that began, "There’s no genre of writing more in love with its own bullshit than hard-boiled detective fiction," and closed by calling Ellroy "one nasty piece of work." A month later the magazine named the book a 1996 Best Book of the Year and ran a long and fawning interview with its author.

Ellroy devoted much of this spring to finishing an extensive international tour in support of My Dark Places and to wrapping up his film commitments.

His efforts included traveling to Cannes for the Film Festival, where LA Confidential was entered in the main competition. Ellroy estimates that he has been recognized on the street by American readers "seven or eight times" over the course of his career. "I’m recognized in Europe seven or eight times a day," he says wonderingly. "It’s amazing." He is grateful for the success but has come to dread European interviewers, who cast him as an American "outsider" writer a la Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs, writers whose work he find "contemptible."

"These French interviewers all insist that I must be in terrible pain to write these dark, awful books," he says with a wide smile. "I say no, you don’t get it, Froggy, I’m having a blast. The other day I had a Belgian in here for two hours who paid absolutely no attention to any of my answers to his questions, he already had his story worked out and challenged every single one of my responses."

He smiles. "I wanted to kill him."

And yet he is quite comfortable accepting the praise lavished upon him from critics here and abroad. He reads all of his press and generally agrees with it. "I think I have the immortality thing covered," he says in one of his unnervingly casual asides. "I’ve written three masterpieces in a row. Hammett and Chandler never did that."

The books to which he refers are White Jazz, American Tabloid and My Dark Places, and collectively they represent Ellroy’s break with both the crime genre that first brought him fame and with the city which gave him birth. White Jazz, the stylized and staccato stream-of-consciousness conclusion of the LA Quartet, is vastly more "literary" than the rest of Ellroy’s work. American Tabloid is the first book in what Ellroy envisions as a trilogy – Underworld USA – recounting an alternate history of American politics over the years 1958-1973. The novel has only peripheral connections to Los Angeles. Like most elements in his carefully plotted life, both books were the result of studied calculation; Ellroy decided on the broad outlines of the LA Quartet even before he finished The Black Dahlia, just as he realized that American Tabloid was but the first book of a trilogy early in its writing.

My Dark Places, however, was never part of Ellroy’s master plan. He had already written two novels built around the murder of his mother – Clandestine in 1981 and, most famously, 1987’s The Black Dahlia, his breakthrough novel – and had thoroughly mined the murder for publicity fodder. He did not hesitate to offer interviewers a sound-bite version of the story: Boy’s mother murdered. Boy’s life shattered. Boy grows up to homeless alcoholic jailbird. Jailbird cleans up and writes his way to salvation. Jailbird becomes the Mad Dog of American Crime Fiction, woof-woof.

He told the tale as Dog, and always made sure that the journalists picked up on his essential emotional disconnection from the event. Dog no doubt loved his mother, but didn’t seem to like her very much. Dog declined to paint himself as any kind of victim, which his interviewers usually elected to treat as an act of nobility. Dog often did not even seem to consider his mother a victim, which the interviewers found incomprehensibly attractive.

"It was the kind of story that I knew journalists could understand," he says today. "I used her. I made a conscious decision to glibly exploit her murder, and it worked very well. I thought I had her out of my system. I thought I had shot her down. I was completely wrong."

Much of the first 30 years of Ellroy’s life was devoted to homelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, petty crime and a protracted flirtation with insanity. He lays out the full story in harrowing detail in My Dark Places. It is nearly as lurid as one of his plots.

He was born Lee Ellroy in Los Angeles in 1948. His mother was an industrial nurse with a drinking problem and his father was a fly-by-night uncertified accountant who had a brief run as Rita Hayworth’s business manager. His parents divorced and his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, received custody of the young Lee. Ellroy was a daddy’s boy who often resented and sometimes hated his mother. On a Saturday night in 1958 Geneva went out for a night on the town and never came back. Her body was found the next day in a ditch outside a high school in El Monte. She had been strangled and may have been raped. Her killer was never apprehended.

The murder spun her child into a demon-plagued world of fantasy and petty crime; over the course of the next two decades Ellroy became an alcoholic, drug-addicted burglar and for several years intermittently lived in Robert Burns Park, wearing dark clothes to hide the grime and shaving in the restrooms of the libraries he haunted during the day. He consumed crime novels and found himself structuring his fantasies in narrative form, but his writing days were yet to come.

He had numerous run-ins with the law and accumulated several months in the Los Angeles County Jail. He developed an obsessive fascination with homicide, particularly the murder of women and specifically the ghastly murder/mutilation of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, whose body was found disemboweled and severed at the waist in a vacant lot in Los Angeles in 1949. It remains one of the most famous unsolved homicides in American criminal history. Ellroy combined his childhood memories of his mother with his bloody speculations about the Dahlia into a hellish psychosexual stew that fueled his drug use and propelled a pathetic criminal career; he shoplifted for food and for a time broke into women’s apartments in order to steal their underwear. One day in 1975, burned out on Benzedrex inhalers and twitching with drug psychosis, he woke up strapped to a gurney in the drug ward of County Hospital horrified to realize that he could not remember his own name. When at last he did, he scratched "Lee Earle Ellroy" on the wall next to his head and under it wrote, "I will not go insane."

The beginning of his recovery was the beginning of the trip that brought him to Kansas City. He found steady work caddying at Los Angeles country clubs and moved into a cheap hotel. He joined AA and sobered up in August 1977. As he walked the golf course six days a week, he harnessed his narrative passion to his fascination with crime and began to daydream a novel. In early 1979 he began to write it. Brown’s Requiem appeared as a paperback original in 1981. Ellroy received $3,500 for the book.

Clandestine, his second novel, appeared in 1981. It was his first attempt to deal with his mother’s murder in narrative form. A thinly-veiled fictional retelling of the case, it features a killer who bears a remarkable resemblance to Ellroy’s wastrel father. "I don’t know why I did that," he says today. "I know my old man didn’t kill her, because I was with him when it happened. That was the first time that I thought I finally dealt with it. But I hadn’t."

He continued to caddy. He wrote more books, and the books found fans and critical acclaim. Life started to look pretty good. "I remember one day on the golf course," he says. "My third novel had just been published and I’d just sold my fourth. It was a beautiful day, and I looked around and thought, if it doesn’t every get any better than this, well, that’s OK."

But it did get better. In his dissipated youth his friends called him "Dog." Now Dog became a public figure, a quote machine, a reliably outrageous interview, an identifiable literary figure. He moved to a big house in Connecticut. He dissed pop culture at every opportunity, he called Quentin Tarantino names, he sneered at other writers. He said things like, "Crime fiction rules, other fiction drools." He told a prospective publisher, "I’m going to be the next great one." Hollywood came sniffing around, and Blood On The Moon, one of the early novels, was turned into a forgettable James Woods film called Cop. He attracted attention overseas, and with the money from translation rights finally abandoned the golf course. He was now a full-time writer, chafing at the restrictions of genre. He began to experiment with a more stylized version of his already staccato prose.

In 1985 he began to write The Black Dahlia, an explicit attempt to marry his mother’s murder to the famous case that so obsessed him in his youth. The novel appeared in 1987 and was Ellroy’s breakthrough book, collecting legions of hipster admirers. In the book, a grisly, partially fictionalized re-telling of the notorious murder, Ellroy tellingly "solves" the crime. He dedicated the book to his mother.

To Geneva Hilliker-Ellroy                             1915-1958                                                         Mother:                                                     Twenty-nine Years Later,                                       This Valediction in Blood

He wept as he wrote the dedication; Once again he believed that he had laid to rest his demons. Once again he was wrong.

The commercial success of The Black Dahlia gave Ellroy international fame and fortune. Marriage to Helen Knode gave him personal contentment. American Tabloid gave mainstream acclaim and a final break with a literary genre he found boring. Kansas City gave him a home. A 1994 call from a California reporter gave him back his mother.

The reporter was preparing a feature story about old, unsolved Southern California homicides. One of his subject cases was Geneva Ellroy’s murder, and the reporter would be examining the police file. Was Ellroy interested. Ellroy was.

He went far beyond examining his mother’s file. He partnered up with Bill Stoner, a homicide detective newly retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and began to reinvestigate the case. Stoner spent 32 years as a cop.

"When he called the first time and asked to see the file, I was still working," Stoner says. "I was about three months away from retirement. He said, "I’ll send you some books." The first one I read was White Jazz. I thought, does this guy know any honest cops? He has a really slanted opinion of police officers. Later he told me that good cops make for bad fiction."

Stoner was troubled by two other considerations. "I was concerned because his background was so different from mine," he says. "Some of my colleagues were disapproving because of his criminal history, but once they got to know him they were able to put that aside, they realized he’s a very classy person. Most of his criminal background is just ‘drunk.’ But the other thing that bothered me was that I’d never worked so closely with a family member of the victim, and at first he was very negative about his mother. He spoke so negatively about her that I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to go through with it. They offered a good chunk of money, and I told my wife that we ought to set it aside, in case the arrangement didn’t work out and I decided to pull out. It wasn’t necessary."

The two men spent 15 months turning over old leads and developing new ones. On one level it was a murder investigation. On another it was something else entirely. Ellroy knew the investigation would produce a book. He didn’t at first realize that it would also bring to life Geneva Hilliker Ellroy as a real human being, a loving, flesh-and-blood mother. The hours of interviews with witnesses, friends, and family, failed to find a killer, but they led Ellroy back to a mother whose memory he had deliberately obscured.

Stoner watched the unfolding process in amazement. "To watch a grown man fall in love with his own mother was a very emotional experience," he says simply.

Today Ellroy points to the one of the many photographs of his mother displayed in his workroom. "I have her back now," he says. "I’ll always have her. She’s with me every day. I’ll never let her go."

With My Dark Places he has finally abandoned his past as publicity material. Today he wants to talk about the future, his home, about the next novel, about becoming a better writer. He is not so arrogant to assume that he has put anything "behind" him. When asked by a British interviewer about the "cathartic" effect of writing My Dark Places, he said, "Closure is a preposterous, facile, fatuous notion, the sort of thing exemplified by the worst aspects of American daytime television."

In private conversation he is more succinct: He says, "Closure is bullshit." He doesn’t say "woof-woof."

This article was originally published in  Kansas City Magazine, and is reprinted here with the express permission of Patrick Quinn.

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