"Anybody who doesn't know that politics is crime has got a few screws loose.""As a kid, I sensed history going on all around me, but the basic thrust of it didn't move me.""As critical acclaim and response has built up, every interview I give is a chance to puncture the myth I've created about my work and refine it.""As much as I transferred my mother to Elizabeth Shore of The Black Dahlia, as much as her dad mutated into an obsession with crime in general, well, I have thought about other things throughout the years.""Every one of my books is written from the viewpoint of cops, with the exception of my book Killer on the Road, which is written from the viewpoint of a serial killer.""I am a writer. I could not afford to take 15 months off from my writing career to play detective.""I am conservative by temperament. I disapprove of criminal activity. I am very solidly and markedly on the side of authority. The truth is I would rather err on the side of too much authority than too little.""I am the most well-adjusted human being I know. I started out this investigation as a very happy man with a great career. I've got the life people dream about: I am rich, I am famous, I've got a fabulous marriage to an absolutely, spell-bindingly brilliant woman.""I don't know anybody in the underworld. I make this stuff up. I don't know any criminals.""I have a very intense marriage.""I haven't been to a movie in a year and a half.""I like to be alone so I can write. But focus can hurt you. I don't want to be some stress casualty in early middle age.""I put on such a good show, the story is outrageous, and people don't want to hear that I'm basically a reasonable human being. As long as it continues to get me print, I'll continue to perform in an exuberant manner.""I want to see these bad, bad, bad, bad men come to grips with their humanity.""I was a WASP kid going to a high school that was 99 percent Jewish and I wanted attention and I wanted to make a spectacle of myself because I couldn't stand to be ignored.""I would like to provoke ambiguous responses in my readers.""I'm clenched down, I'm locked in on it, which is my general approach to life.""I'm getting a wider circle of fans now. More women, more middle class people.""I've been tremendously moved by a bunch of odd books. Ross McDonald is very important to me. I love the Lew Archer books.""My mother and I will continue on some level that I haven't determined yet. I think my mother's a great character, and I have to say that giving my mother to the world has to be the biggest thrill of my writing career.""Noir is dead for me because historically, I think it's a simple view. I've taken it as far as it can go. I think I've expanded on it a great deal, taken it further than any other American novelist.""Raymond Chandler once wrote that Dashiell Hammett gave murder back to the people who really committed it.""Rock and rollers can get you the youth buzz, and younger people are fanatical readers.""The truth of the matter is, you lose a parent to murder when you're 10 years old, and in fact at the time of the murder you hate your lost parent, my mother in my case.""When I was a kid, Eisenhower had been President forever, and all of a sudden, everything in the world was all about Jack Kennedy. I was 12, interested in politics; my father was from Massachusetts, had an accent like Kennedy."
Lee Earle Ellroy was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of Geneva Odelia (née Hilliker), a nurse, and Armand Ellroy, an accountant and according to Ellroy, onetime business manager of Rita Hayworth. After his parents' divorce, Ellroy and his mother relocated to El Monte, California. In 1958, Ellroy's mother was murdered. The police never arrested the perpetrator, and the case remains unsolved. The murder, along with The Badge by Jack Webb (a book composed of sensational cases from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department, a birthday gift from his father), were important events of Ellroy's youth.
Ellroy's inability to come to terms with the emotions surrounding his mother's murder led him to transfer them onto another murder victim, Elizabeth Short, the "Black Dahlia"; throughout his youth, Ellroy used Short as a surrogate for his conflicting emotions and desires. These confusions led to a period of intense clinical depression, from which he recovered only gradually.
Ellroy dropped out of school without graduating. He joined the Army for a short while. During his teens and twenties, he drank heavily and abused Benzedrex inhalers. He was engaged in minor crimes (especially shoplifting, house-breaking and burglary), and was often homeless. After serving some time in jail and suffering a bout of pneumonia, during which he developed an abscess on his lung "the size of a large man's fist", Ellroy stopped drinking and began working as a golf caddy while pursuing writing. He later said, "Caddying was good tax-free cash and allowed me to get home by 2 p.m. and write books... I caddied right up to the sale of my fifth book."
After a second marriage in the mid-90s to Helen Knode (author of the 2003 novel The Ticket Out), the couple moved from California to Kansas City in 1995. In 2006, after their divorce, Ellroy returned to Los Angeles. He is a self-described hermit who possesses very few technological amenities, including television, and claims to never read contemporary books by other authors, aside from Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field, for fear that they might influence his own, however this does not mean Ellroy does not read at all, as he claimed in My Dark Places to have read at least two books a week growing up, eventually shoplifting more to satisfy his love of reading. He then goes on to say that he read works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler accompanied with abuse of alcohol and Benzedrex inhalers.
In 1981, Ellroy published his first novel, Brown's Requiem, a detective story drawing on his experiences as a caddy. He then published Clandestine and Silent Terror (which was later published under the title Killer on the Road). Ellroy followed these three novels with the Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy, three novels following the eponymous character.
Ellroy has become known for a so-called "telegraphic" prose style of his most recent work, wherein he frequently omits connecting words and uses only short, staccato sentences.For instance:
They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee. He wasn't sure he could do it. The Casino Operators Council flew him. They supplied first-class fare. They tapped their slush fund. They greased him. They fed him six cold.
Other hallmarks of his work include dense plotting and a relentlessly pessimistic—albeit moral—worldview. His work has earned Ellroy the nickname the "Demon Dog of American crime fiction."
Ellroy writes longhand on legal pads, rather than on a computer, and prepares elaborate outlines for his books, most of which are several hundred pages long.
Dialog and narration in Ellroy novels often consists of a "heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular", with a particular use of period-appropriate, but now anachronistic, slang. He often employs stripped-down staccato sentence structures, a style that reaches its apex in The Cold Six Thousand, and which Ellroy describes as a "direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that's declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards." This signature style is not the result of a conscious decision, but chance. This came about when he was asked by his editor to shorten his novel "White Jazz" from 900 pages to 350. Rather than removing any sub-plots, Ellroy achieved this by eliminating verbs, creating a unique style of prose. While each sentence on its own is simple, the cumulative effect is a dense, baroque style.
The L.A. Quartet
While his early novels earned him a "cult" following, Ellroy earned much greater success and critical acclaim with the L.A. Quartet...The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. The four novels represent Ellroy's change of style from the tradition of classic modernist noir fiction of his earlier novels to so-called postmodern historiographic metafiction. The Black Dahlia, for example, fused the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short with a fictional story of two police officers investigating the crime.
Underworld USA Trilogy
In 1995, Ellroy published American Tabloid, the first novel in a series informally dubbed the "Underworld USA Trilogy", which Ellroy describes as a "secret history" of the mid-to-late 20th century. Tabloid was named TIME's fiction book of year for 1995. Its follow-up, The Cold Six Thousand, became a bestseller. The final novel, Blood's a Rover, was released on September 22, 2009.
My Dark Places
After publishing American Tabloid, Ellroy began a memoir, My Dark Places based on his memories of his mother's murder and his investigation of the crime. In the memoir, Ellroy mentions that his mother's murder received little news coverage, and the media was still fixated on Johnny Stompanato's murder. Frank C. Girardot, a reporter for The San Gabriel Valley Tribune, accessed files on Geneva Hilliker Ellroy's murder from detectives with Los Angeles Police Department. Based on the cold case file, Ellroy and investigator Bill Stoner worked the case, but gave up after fifteen months, believing any suspects to be dead. In 2008, The Library of America selected the essay "My Mother's Killer" from My Dark Places for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
In media appearances, Ellroy has adopted an outsized, stylized public persona of hard-boiled nihilism and self-reflexive subversiveness. He frequently begins public appearances with a monologue such as:
Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin' family, if the name of your family is the Manson Family.
Another aspect of his public persona involves an almost comically grand assessment of his work and his place in literature. For example, he told the New York Times, "I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music."
Ellroy frequently has espoused conservative political views, which have ranged from a vague anti-liberalism to authoritarianism. In an October 15, 2009, Rolling Stone interview, Ellroy said that in the sixties and seventies "I was never a peacemaker; I was a fuck-you right-winger." He has also been an outspoken and unquestioning admirer of the Los Angeles Police Department, and he dismisses the department's flaws as aberrations, telling the National Review that the coverage of the Rodney King beating and Rampart police scandals were overblown by a biased media. Nevertheless, like other aspects of his persona, he often deliberately obscures where his public persona ends and his actual views begin. When asked about his "right-wing tendencies," he told an interviewer, "Right-wing tendencies? I do that to fuck with people." Similarly, in the film Feast of Death, his (now ex-) wife describes his politics as "bullshit," an assessment to which Ellroy responds only with a knowing smile. Privately, Ellroy opposes the death penalty and favors gun control. Of the current political environment, Ellroy told Rolling Stone in 2009:
I thought Bush was a slimeball and the most disastrous American president in recent times. I voted for Obama. He's a lot like Jack Kennedy...they both have big ears and infectious smiles. But Obama is a deeper guy. Kennedy was an appetite guy. He wanted pussy, hamburgers, booze. Jack did a lot of dope.
Structurally, several of Ellroy's books, such as The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid, and The Cold Six Thousand, have three disparate points of view through different characters, with chapters alternating between them. Starting with The Black Dahlia, Ellroy's novels have mostly been historical dramas about the relationship between corruption and law enforcement.
A predominant theme of Ellroy's work is the myth of "closure." "Closure is bullshit," Ellroy often remarks, "and I would love to find the man who invented closure and shove a giant closure plaque up his ass."
Ellroy has claimed that he is done with noir crime novels. "I write big political books now," he says. "I want to write about LA exclusively for the rest of my career. I don't know where and when."
Several of Ellroy's works have been adapted to film, including Blood on the Moon (adapted as Cop), L.A. Confidential, Brown's Requiem, Killer on the Road/Silent Terror (adapted as Stay Clean), and The Black Dahlia. In each instance, screenplays based on Ellroy's work have been penned by other screenwriters.
While he has frequently been disappointed by these adaptations (such as Cop), he was very complimentary of Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland's screenplay for L.A. Confidential at the time of its release. In succeeding years, however, his comments have been more reserved:
L.A. Confidential, the movie, is the best thing that happened to me in my career that I had absolutely nothing to do with. It was a fluke...and a wonderful one...and it is never going to happen again...a movie of that quality.
Here’s my final comment on L.A. Confidential, the movie: I go to a video store in Prairie Village, Kansas. The youngsters who work there know me as the guy who wrote L.A. Confidential. They tell all the little old ladies who come in there to get their G-rated family flick. They come up to me, they say, “OOOO you wrote L.A. Confidential.... Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful movie. I saw it four times. You don’t see storytelling like that on the screen anymore.” I smile, I say, “Yes, it’s a wonderful movie, and a salutary adaptation of my wonderful novel. But listen, granny: You love the movie. Did you go out and buy the book?” And granny invariably says, “Well, no, I didn’t.” And I say to granny, “Then what the fuck good are you to me?”
Shortly after viewing three hours of unedited footage for Brian De Palma's adaptation of The Black Dahlia, Ellroy wrote an essay, "Hillikers," praising De Palma and his film. Ultimately, nearly an hour was removed from the final cut, and the film was a commercial and critical disappointment. Of the released film, Ellroy told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Look, you’re not going to get me to say anything negative about the movie, so you might as well give up." He had however, mocked the film's director, cast and production design before it was filmed
In 2008, Daily Variety reported that HBO, along with Tom Hanks's production company, Playtone, were developing American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand for either a mini-series or ongoing series.
Ellroy co-wrote the original screenplay for the 2008 film Street Kings, but refused to do any publicity for the finished film.
In a 2009 interview, Ellroy himself stated "All movie adaptations of my books are dead."