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James Ellroy Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: 1948. Career: Has held a variety of jobs, including country club caddy, 1965-84. Since 1984, full-time writer. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber Assc., 146 East 19th St., New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Brown's Requiem. New York, Avon, 1981; London, Allison andBusby, 1984.

Clandestine. New York, Avon, 1982; London, Allison and Busby, 1984.

Blood on the Moon. New York, Mysterious Press, 1984; London, Allison and Busby, 1985.

Because the Night. New York, Mysterious Press, 1984; London, Century, 1987.

Suicide Hill. New York, Mysterious Press, 1986; London, Century, 1988.

Killer on the Road. New York, Mysterious Press, 1986.

Silent Terror. New York, Mysterious Press, 1986; London, Arrow, 1990.

L.A. Quartet:

The Black Dahlia. New York, Mysterious Press, 1987; London, Mysterious Press UK, 1988.

The Big Nowhere. New York, Mysterious Press, 1988; London, Mysterious Press UK, 1989.

L.A. Confidential. New York and London, Mysterious Press, 1990.

White Jazz. New York, Knopf, and London, Random House, 1992.

American Tabloid. New York, Knopf, and London, Century, 1995.

L.A. Noir. (contains Blood on the Moon, Because the Night, and Suicide Hill). New York, Mysterious Press, 1998.

Short Stories

Hollywood Nocturnes. New York, Knopf, 1994; as Dick Contino's Blues and Other Stories. London, Arrow, 1994.

Other

Murder and Mayhem: An A-Z of the World's Most Notorious Killers. London, Arrow, 1992.

My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Crime Wave: Reportage and Fiction from the Underside of L.A. NewYork, Vintage, 1999.

*

Film Adaptations:

L.A. Confidential, 1997.

Manuscript Collection:

Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.

* * *

Labeling James Ellroy a writer of hardboiled crime or noir fiction oversimplifies his contribution to American imaginative writing. Although his earliest novels belong to the generic crime mode perfected by masters like Chandler, Cain, and MacDonald, the originality of recent works like Dick Contino's Blues and American Tabloid compel a different critical attention. After ten successful works of a pulp fiction both unsentimental and romantic, this unorthodox author began to depict life in America at the end of the 20th century as a remembered story of comically exaggerated criminality.

Similar traits stamp Ellroy's first two novels, Brown's Requiem and Clandestine, as the work of a gifted but unpracticed author: disturbed cops corrupted by the crime world they are supposed to combat; redeeming women who are (or were) hookers; sprawling, ill-managed plots loaded with depravity and violence. The second book replicates the framework of the murder of Ellroy's mother (which occurred in 1958 and remains unsolved), and it includes a portrait of himself as the young boy he was at the time of her death. His next projects were a long saga of the caper-filled life of gangster Bugsy Siegel and an extended epic of the Los Angeles underworld that concluded with the city's burning down. Persuaded to abandon The Confessions of Bugsy Siegel, Ellroy reworked and published the L.A. epic as Blood on the Moon in 1984. With his next two novels, Because the Night and Suicide Hill, it formed a trilogy about the brilliant but tainted L.A. cop, Lloyd Hopkins, described by New York magazine contributor Martin Kihn as "an evil-genius … [who] becomes by the end of the series the archetypal Ellroy cop, indistinguishable from his prey and tortured by guilt." These were followed in 1986 by Killer on the Road, narrated by a serial killer named Martin Plunkett. Then Ellroy returned to the city and time of his own genesis—Los Angeles, from the late 1940s until 1958—to produce the four novels that constitute the "L.A. Quartet": The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. Published between 1987 and 1992, they catapulted James Ellroy into the top rank of new, original crime fiction authors.

These progressively baroque stories of corruption, depravity, and violence turn Los Angeles into an emblematic urban inferno for our time. The Black Dahlia 's hero is the sensitive ex-boxer, Bucky Bleichert, who joins the LAPD after World War II and is soon plunged into the famous 1947 "Black Dahlia" murder case, a social storm whipped up by the discovery of a young woman's mutilated body in a Los Angeles vacant lot. Obsessively pursuing a solution to the case (in reality it went unsolved), the naive Bleichert is personally transformed through a violent plot that parallels both the course of the murder investigation and the path of his relationships with fellow cops, a kindred detective partner, their shared lover, and a sexually irresistible female in her twenties who perversely relives the sordid career of the mysterious "Black Dahlia." Called by Harlan Ellison "the shocker other writers would kill to have written," The Black Dahlia is dedicated to "Geneva Hilliker Ellroy 1915-1958," and inscribed "Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood."

The heroes of the next three novels of the "L.A. Quartet" live, like Bucky Bleichert, in the region between morally unredeemable personal lives and the enveloping swamp of American urban corruption. Harboring terrible personal secrets, they are driven to accomplish something honest in their compromised lives, while also furiously compelled to identify the wellsprings of their spiritual torture. They move through plots that compound sensational incident and crazy complication at exponentially gathering paces, leading to tensilely wrought climaxes. Their adventures are narrated with a progressively condensed, high-energy expressiveness that mimics the several dictions of mainstream newspaper, sensational tabloid, gossip magazine, municipal bureaucracy, advertising agency, and police communication. Ellroy gives them speech and thought that convincingly captures the talk and intelligence of working cops, established gangsters, ethnic Los Angelenos, and most of the numerous types who populate the city's sprawling lowlife.

In The Big Nowhere, Ellroy employs a multiple point-of-view, his trio of compromised heroes carrying a three-strand plot that focuses on the early-1950s hunt for Communists in the movie business, the conspiracy between organized crime and the LAPD, and the growing phobia about homosexuality in American society. Young sheriff's deputy Danny Upshaw transforms his buried secret of unadmitted homosexuality into an obsessive zeal to prosecute the perpetrators of a string of revoltingly perverse sex murders. His counterparts, an ambitious police sergeant and an expulsed city cop turned private security guard, are similarly driven to compensate for self-perceived failures of character. The corrupt social system ultimately does them all in, leaving the Irish-born, diabolically conniving LAPD detective, Dudley Smith, to rule over the criminal infestation that defines American life more and more into the 1950s.

Dave Klein, the hero of White Jazz, is the most morally tortured cop-hero of the "Quartet." A sublimated incestuous relationship with his sister not only prevents his finding pleasure in women, but also shackles him psychologically to every prurient vice assignment. Everything in his barely tolerable environment stimulates his murderous inclinations, and his history of quasi-official executions and betrayals allows his departmental superiors to expose him to deadly hazards. Klein nevertheless succeeds in enlisting our sympathy, both by wrestling with his inner torment and by regarding his repulsive world honestly. In the most extreme act of unlawfulness yet committed by an Ellroy cop-hero, he exacts a ferocious revenge on the plot's lead villains, as penalty for which he suffers a beating so thorough that his physiognomy requires rebuilding. Thus disguised, he escapes his avengers and finds the freedom to set down this supposed "memoir" of horrible events in Los Angeles of the mid-1950s which we are reading.

The theme of an archetypal villainy rooted in the police mentality itself may dominate the four novels of the "L.A. Quartet," but Ellroy also injects them with an increasingly comic serum by portraying many of the secondary characters—especially the historically documentable gangsters and celebrities—as familiar caricatures. Although it seems clear that he means to suggest thereby the ludicrous influence wrought on the American imagination by these publicity-fashioned personalities, with their outlandish behavior and bizarrely demotic lingo, some critics have found it callously offensive of Ellroy to bestow such unacceptable views and articulateness upon both his demi-heroes and their low-life confreres. But this presumed political incorrectness is also quite authentic, both behaviorally and linguistically. Indeed, the characters' aggregate argot constitutes a colorfully "hip" language all its own, a kind of fictively vulgar tongue for late century. These figures may therefore be heard as speaking in the submerged "voice of our time," uttering the unspoken views of a sickened national conscience. On this matter, Ellroy is quoted by Kihn as saying: "I think that social revisionism and political correctness make for very, very bad crime novels."

The 1994 collection of short pieces, Hollywood Nocturnes, offers an excellent sampling of Ellroy's developing dark-comic rendition of the world as a kaleidoscopic cartoon of corruption. The centerpiece of the compendium is the novella, Dick Contino's Blues, whose first-person narrator is the documentable Contino himself, a reasonably successful pop singer and accordionist of the 1950s. Ellroy has him tell a manic adventure story set in southern California, a tale of grade-Z Hollywood movies, sexual hustling, extortion, murder, and drug-dealing, enacted with a breathless brio by gangsters, politicians, moguls, detectives, and a gallery of L.A. citizenry—car salesmen, beat cops, real estate brokers, singers, hookers, waitresses, Disney artists, bureaucrats, small-time hoodlums, and every kind of proto-lounge lizard. In short, it is the usual Ellroy circus, but performing in a more than usually bizarre Ellroy plot.

Together with its introductory essay, "Out of the Past," Dick Contino's Blues encapsulates all the energies and impetuses of Ellroy's literary quest for his own life's significance, a creative destiny he has been pursuing unwittingly (it turns out) since the age of 30, when, after almost dying from drug and alcohol abuse three years earlier, he finally decided to start writing. His impetus for the novelistic experiment came from a recalled image of the entertaining Contino in a 1958 television appearance, an image that coalesced with a photograph, sent to him years later by a friend, taken of the ten-yearold Ellroy on June 22, 1958, minutes after he was told that his mother had been found murdered. As he relates in "Out of the Past:"

The photo held me transfixed; its force transcended my many attempts to exploit my past for book sales. An underlying truth zapped me: my bereavement, even in that moment, as ambiguous. I'm already calculating potential advantages, regrouping as the officious men surrounding me defer to the perceived grief of a little boy.

After he had framed the photo and stared at it for "a good deal of time," he writes, "Spark point: late '50s memories re-ignited." In his sparked memory, the "grade-Z movie" Daddy-O that Contino made after his career had been torpedoed by a charge of draft-dodging merges with Ellroy's awakening perception that the "L.A. Quartet" novels contain the significant secrets still locked in his own memory; these secrets now promise an emergent clarity because they have been re-contextualized by the chance juxtaposition of shocked boy's photo and lounge entertainer's television image, both deriving from the late 1950s. "Because I knew—instinctively—that he held important answers. I sensed that he could powerfully spritz narrative detail and fill up holes in my memory, bringing Los Angeles in the late '50s into some sort of hyper-focus." Memory, for Ellroy, is "that place where personal recollections collide with history."

Finding the 63-year-old Dick Contino in Las Vegas, the author of ten money-making crime novels confirmed the feeling that he was about to change direction in his writing. In two days of conversations—about how to adjust to shifting popular taste, what constitutes quality in popular entertainment, why the audience cannot be deprived of their easy entertainment—Ellroy solidified his sense that his "world had tilted toward a new understanding of my past." After the accordionist had serenaded him for his forty-fifth birthday, Ellroy says: "I asked Dick if he would consent to appear as the hero of a novella and my next novel." These would be books about "fear, courage and heavily compromised redemptions." Contino agreed, saying: "Good, I think I've been there."

These insights and the narrative action of Dick Contino's Blues make it possible to appreciate Ellroy's earlier fiction for more than the raw, sensational, titillating effects of its plots and narrative energies. At a deeper level, the maniacal violence and cold-bloodedness in them manifest the author's passionate need to understand the fullness of his half-buried personal memory, which had both haunted and eluded him. As he says, quoting Jung: "What is not brought to consciousness comes to us as fate." He refers both to his finding of Dick Contino and to his fictive sallies into the period shared by Contino's mid-life and his own childhood, the American post-Korea 1950s.

In American Tabloid, the novel he was writing as he also plotted the Contino novella, Ellroy breaks away from Los Angeles as his main fictive venue. The crime chronicler's American version of the City of Dis now spreads out to encompass all the sites of the momentous events leading to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And the plot, tapping the several modes of contemporary American fiction that have already engaged this modern mythic material, gleefully tangles up the high-fictional doings of the Mafia, the CIA, the Kennedys, J. Edgar Hoover, Jimmy Hoffa, and the sundry organizations involved in early 1960s civil rights, racket-busting, Kennedy electioneering, the Bay of Pigs, and anti-Communism, not to omit a menagerie of Hollywood and showbiz characters ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Howard Hughes.

Miami, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and several other purviews of the Mob, the CIA, and the FBI intertwine to form a plot terrain that could compete, in its sweep and detail, with the combined features of Dali, Brueghel, Villon, and Rabelais. This ground is traversed with extreme modern facility by the novel's three maculate heroes: Kemper Boyd, a stone-souled free agent of conspiracy and a genius at multiple role-playing; Ward Littell, a guilt-infected repository of self-destructiveness and Jesuit-schooled moral absolutism, deteriorating sympathetically into a helpless American amorality; and Pete Bondurant, the hired hitman and dope-runner carried over from his minor role in White Jazz to discharge the duties of an old-fashioned fictional heavy who turns out to be a romantic. An introductory note, presuming the would-be narrative authority to "tell it like it is," declares that America, having long since lost its innocence, now needs to look at its recent traumatic history from the point of the view of the "bad little men" who have actually shaped it. These duly become the characters of Ellroy's most picaresque novel to date. American Tabloid presents the historic adventures of all the American rogues one can imagine participating in the early 1960s' commedia of Camelot, Cuba, and the CIA.

James Ellroy has declared that he wants to recreate the entire history of 20th-century America—"the story of bad white men"—through crime fiction, thereby becoming "the Tolstoy of the crime novel." With the Contino novella and American Tabloid, he revealed a bold new direction to this design. He would not merely insert historical personages into his stories and rewrite their lives' facts, as docu-novelists like Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo were still doing; he would appropriate a still-living, modest entertainment figure from those "bad old days" like Dick Contino and make him the "improved" narrative hero of his memorial crime fictions. In this process, he would also refine the comic sensibility that has been growing through his years of holding off the demons of personal bitterness and egomania. As his friend Joseph Wambaugh told Martin Kihn: "I always suspect that beneath [his anger and intensity] there's a performer there …. You sort of know you're being put on when you're with James Ellroy—maybe even when you read him, in a sense." Ellroy's fictional performances, inspired by their fiercely unsentimental vision of our times, do indeed disclose a Beckett-like comedian who, spawned in Los Angeles, California, in the middle of the century, seems destined to chronicle its absurd, criminal course ironically—as if it were his own life's perfect metaphor. In the memoir My Dark Places, Ellroy explores the relationship between his early influences—most of all the murder of his mother—and his eventual development as a writer. "The 47-year-old man," he writes, "had to interrogate the 10-year-old boy."

—Peter W. Ferran

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