Inside The Mind Of James Ellroy, America's Most Twisted Crime Writer

Ahead of this week's release of Perfidia – the first book in Ellroy's second 'L.A. Quartet' – we delve into the Esquire archives with this far-ranging interview on Ellroy's women, megalomania and neurosis to find the greatest crime writer of his generation has never recovered from the brutal rape and murder of his mother 52 years ago

Most Popular

James Ellroy lives in old Hollywood, by which I mean that he inhabits, not some wooden house in a canyon with industrial juicer and spa pool, but an Art Deco apartment block that looms imposingly over the grand and fantastical mansions, all fairytale turrets and expansive lawns, of Hancock Park. This block was built by Paramount Pictures in 1930 to house the studio's staff and stars, and was home to Ava Gardner, Clark Gable and, most famously, Mae West, who lived here until her death in 1980. I can't tell if he chose to rent the place for reasons of poetry (where else should the author of LA Confidential be but here, in a building whose corridors should, but sadly don't, smell of Max Factor panstick and Sobranie cocktail cigarettes?) or of convenience (a cheapskate sign outside announces: "Now leasing!"). But I will say that he seems less enamoured of it, and Los Angeles in general, than me, his wide-eyed visitor. Agreed, his relationship with the City of Angels, is "primitive to the point of atavism", but this doesn't mean he likes it, for God's sake.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"It has changed dramatically," he says. "It is over-populated and uncivilized, not in any rough or horrifying way, but people are perfunctory, and there is a kid media culture that is absolutely appalling." When he drives to his girlfriend's place, he takes a back route, the better to avoid the billboards. The old Hollywood, the one that he loves, or at least the one that still fascinates him to the point of obsession, he believes he will see again only in the next life, from the vantage point of some celestial cloud. "My mother at 32, before she was murdered... Oh, to go back, to go to LA after the war, to find out who killed her, to be in a world that was physically beautiful and untouched." If he is aware of the strangeness of this - I have no idea how a world in which a 10-year-old boy's mother is raped and strangled, and her killer never caught, might be considered beautiful - he gives no sign. Like all his grandest statements, this one is delivered bullet-style. Argument is futile.

Most Popular

But I'm running away with myself. In the lobby, Ellroy shakes my hand. "Miss Cooke," he says. "Thank you for being punctual."  I am to call him, for the time being, Mr Ellroy, which is fine: calling him James would, for me, be like calling the pitbull-cross of one of my less charming neighbours, Fluffy. Ellroy's reputation precedes him. In brief, he is considered by others to be quick to anger, preposterously self-regarding, and strange; and by himself to be, "the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, the slick trick with the donkey dick". In person, he does not let you down. He is wearing a loose shirt covered with hibiscus flowers, and has lost the old toothbrush moustache. But that's it so far as soft edges go. When he talks, something happens to his jaw; he looks like he's chewing raw meat. Tall and rangy with a writer's hump at the top of his spine, he comes with a small repertoire of tics and twitches - someone, or something, is operating him, like a puppet - and a voice so Biblically deep it is as if he is shouting at you from the back of a cave. On the plus side, he likes women more than men, a preference he makes obvious. He will be both flirtatious and needy with me. But the (male) photographer fares less well. "Lose the tattoos if you wanna have a life," Ellroy will tell him later, the first in a series of minor but very deliberate humiliations.

We go upstairs to the apartment, which is dark, its walls the colour of blood. "Prowl around," he says. As a troubled teenager, Ellroy was, famously, a peeper and a prowler, breaking into the mansions of Hancock Park, the better to get close to strange women's knickers. But me...? Maybe it takes one to know one. Anyway, I take him at his word. The snoop doesn't take long. There is no clutter, no [itals] stuff [itals]. With the exception of a portrait of Ellroy's hero, Beethoven, the walls are almost entirely decorated with old photographs, bought from the LAPD archive, of crime scenes: giant flashlights, big cars with Jayne Mansfield curves, a huddled lump on a sidewalk that could be a discarded overcoat, but is in fact a dead human being. There are books, lots, but all of them are by James Ellroy. The furniture is new, pristine, with a dark wood Pottery Barn feel. On the bed, and beside Ellroy's desk, soft toys are arranged: lions and crocodiles. The bathroom still has its old tiles: they are mauve, and beautiful. But the hand towel is... tired-looking. It's as unnerving a home as I've ever visited: impersonal, control freak-tidy, cold. A window is open and, outside, the traffic roars by obliviously. In Los Angeles, everybody seems always to be on the way to someplace else.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Ellroy's new book, The Hilliker Curse, is a memoir, a companion volume to My Dark Places (1996), the best-seller in which Ellroy attempted, 40 years on, to solve the 1958 murder of his mother, Geneva (Jean) Hilliker Ellroy (he did not succeed, a painful failure that allowed his mother, a beautiful red-head with a taste for men and booze, to maintain her harrowingly powerful grip on his imagination). The Hilliker Curse is subtitled "My Pursuit of Women". If this sounds creepy, that's because it is. His fixation with the opposite sex began early, three years before the death of his mother, whom, incidentally, he liked to try and glimpse naked ("I hated her because I wanted her in unspeakable ways"). A photograph from this time shows the boy Ellroy, "lurchlike big and unkempt," in an LA playground. Stage right are four girls. "I'm coiled in pure study," writes Ellroy. "My scrutiny is staggeringly intense." A little later, his father, Armand, who was separated from his mother, asked him what he wanted for his ninth birthday. "I said I wanted a pair of X-ray-eye glasses... My wait was grindingly attenuated. I made lists of all the school and church girls that I could see naked. I concocted ways to tape the glasses to my toy periscope. It would provide instant window access."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The memoir, which began its life as a series for Playboy, then takes the reader through the creeping, prowling years when, numb from his mother's death, and drinking heavily and abusing drugs, he broke into houses. He thinks he put in 20 performances on this score. "I ran my nose over Their pillows. I touched Their clothes and smelled new things and got the flash of Their everydays. The rush always made me dizzy. The lightheadedness felt like a rewiring I might not survive. I stole sets of lingerie. I pulled hairs off brushes and held them to my cheek." The breaking and entering did not last. But the dye was cast, the pattern was set, the Hilliker Curse had taken hold. Ellroy wanted every woman, and all women, to be Jean. As I understand it, he wanted to be loved. But all-consumingly. He wanted a woman to cover his ears, and save him from "the scream of the world". Unfortunately, something that the women he approached saw in him scared them. In his twenties, sober again and having put in a stint in jail, he spent half his time with prostitutes, and the rest hanging around outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the LA Philharmonic played their concerts. When the musicians emerged, he would approach female players, and offer to carry their instruments. The prostitutes would say, suspiciously: "Why are you offering me extra money?" The musicians would say: "No, I don't need you to carry my cello!"

Most Popular

Slowly, things got better. In 1981, he published his first novel, Brown's Requiem. This made womanizing somewhat easier. Magazine profiles are a uniquely mercantile kind of aphrodisiac. There was a first, short marriage to a business executive called Mary, and a second, much longer marriage to a writer called Helen Knode, whom he wed in 1991, on the approach to the peak of his considerable fame, in a rented house in Laurel Canyon. Helen was 'The One': "She had countermanded Jean Hilliker adroitly", or so he thought, and it was Helen who set him on the search for his mother's murderer by turning up, horrifyingly, a newspaper photograph of a blank-faced boy Ellroy in the hours after he was told of her death (at the time, his mother's murder had barely been reported; the press was too obsessed with the killing of Johnny Stompanato, Lana Turner's boyfriend, a character Ellory later put in his novel, LA Confidential). But then, in 2001, during a mega-book tour for his novel, The Cold Six Thousand, Ellroy suffered a nervous breakdown. Among his symptoms: panic attacks, extreme hypochondria, insomnia, strange bowel movements, a need for the dark, an obsession with the suicide poet, Anne Sexton. He and Helen divorced. He went back to his own unique form of stalking.

There followed a couple of disastrous affairs - "I was going everywhere trying to meet, marry and contain women," he tells me - until, at a reading, he eyeballed a woman called Erika Schickel, the author of a "hilarious" mom-memoir called You're Not the Boss of Me. Schickel was married, and had two teenage daughters. But for Ellroy, dogged as a preacher, none of this mattered. She really was 'The One'. He exhorted her to leave her husband and, eventually, she did (Schickel told him about her new lover on the way back from a family vacation. "They dined en famille at a Rally Burger dump," writes Ellroy, trying hard not to sound too crazedly triumphant. "Erika and her husband sat on a grassy strip nearby. A dog turd reposed a few feet away.... She told him. He took it hard.... We've been together since then.") The Hilliker Curse is dedicated to Schickel and, he sombrely informs me, she is in the apartment, ready to talk. Sure enough, the next moment, I see her. She is much younger than him, in her forties. She looks wholesome and anxious. Ellroy insists that she is "an alchemist's recasting of Jean Hilliker", but I don't see it at all. When he sits down on the sofa beside her, they begin pawing and patting and stroking each other. They do not stop until she leaves half an hour later.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

When they met, Ellroy had already begun work on The Hilliker Curse, and when Schickel discovered what it was about, she "knew that I had to be in it". Ellroy, meanwhile, would lie in the dark and talk to her imaginary presence. They agree that there is something mystical about their getting together, and tell me so without embarrassment, though she concedes she is terrified of how the book will be received: "People saying things about us, about me. Ellroy is not the warmly beloved figure you might imagine, and we have come under some judgement, and it's terrifying. One of the things I'm learning from James is the art of not giving a shit, which he is very, very good at." I look at him. He is gazing dopily at her. Is this so? "Yes. I really do not give a shit. I love blitzing a dinner party of liberals with my Tory world view, and trashing the shit out of them. She'll say: 'Calm down, I'm going to jerk your chain, your fangs are showing.' This whole zombied-out America, with its fatuous ideas, its idiotic Obama worship. Nothing but comedies about fat boys who smoke marijuana and want girlfriends. I just want to get to some fucking place where the people are, 'Yes, sir; no, sir; Mr Ellroy, Miss Cooke; rabbi, pastor, doctor, professor'." Schekel duly yanks his chain - well, she pats the back of his hand - and leaves.

He turns his attention to me. In his book, I say, he repeatedly states his belief that he made Erika appear: that her presence in his life is an act of will on his part. Can this be right? Is wanting something very badly enough, in itself, to make such a thing happen? Apparently so. "I know it to be true," he says. "I am extremely diligent, meticulous, and single-minded, and that impairs my progress in the world which, for me, is fraught with imagery and aggravation. For half a century, I have spent most evenings alone in the dark, thinking. I think about classical music and American history and women. My knowledge that these women - Helen, Erika - would appear was entirely naive and solipsistic, but it wasn't wrong." According to media legend, it is the death of his mother, raped and dumped in an ivy patch, that is the engine of his fabulously successful crime writing career. But this is a theory that ignores his brain, which is big and hyperactive and somewhat burdensome to him. "I have a surfeit of mental energy," he says. "On the other hand, when you have a sexual relationship with your mother, it colours everything."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. His mother was a nurse, his father had been some kind of fixer for Rita Hayworth (and possibly, her lover), and they excelled at appearances. "They were a great-looking cheap couple, along the lines of Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Macao," he writes in My Dark Places. "They stayed together for 15 years. It had to be sex." When they divorced, Ellroy lived with his mother, and observed her antics - she was promiscuous by the standards of the day - like some miniature anthropologist, cold and beady. When she was killed, he went to live with his father, who gave him The Badge by Jack Webb, a book comprising the LAPD's most sensational cases. Thereafter, Ellroy read "gazillions" of crime novels, and little else. "I've never felt compelled to take a course in world literature," he says. "I've never read magical realism. I'm amazed anyone can." Thanks to Webb, he also developed an obsession with Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, to whom he seems to have transferred the emotions he could not allow himself to feel for his mother (after Jean's death, he could not cry unless he forced himself; what he felt mainly was that her killer had bought him a "brand-new beautiful life"). Short, who was gruesomely murdered in 1947, later became the subject of Ellroy's 1987 novel, The Black Dahlia, the first book in the quartet that also includes The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz. It was with this novel that the critics first began talking of him as the heir to Hammett and Chandler.

Most Popular

Ellroy's novels are marked by their style, which is staccato, "declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards". His worldview, particularly as seen in his Underworld Trilogy, a secret history of the mid-20th-century, starring Howard Hughes and others (it comprises American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood's A Rover), is relentlessly grubby and pessimistic. His memoirs, on the other hand, are marked mostly by their astonishing lack of self-pity, especially when considered in the context of his compatriots' Oprah-led emotional incontinence. "Yes. I'm nothing but grateful, and nothing but happy. The fall back for men in life is isolation and self-pity. I'm prone to isolation, but not to self-pity. This is because I am a creature of faith. Even at the height of my depraved stuff, I always had a sense of divine presence." But what happened to you as a child would have destroyed most people. "Well, I'm just as cold and ruthless and consumed by ambition as I ever was. But if you live in gratitude, you feel better moment to moment." Would he have been able to keep going had his books not been best-sellers, had the critics not hailed him as America's greatest crime writer? "I don't know. I'm a dauntless human being, and I love the process of writing, but I must also return to the example of Beethoven. The worse it got for him, the greater he got. Who am I to falter?" He is limbering up to start work on his next quartet, the first book of which will be set in the Los Angeles of Pearl Harbour. "I'm going to turn seven novels [the LA Quartet, the Underworld Trilogy] into 11 novels and, in doing so, write a seamless social and criminal history of LA from 1942 to 1972. It's big, it's megalomaniacal, but do I feel up to it? Oh, yes."

I wonder how he feels about the fact he has made his dead mother part of the Ellroy brand? Guilty? "I wonder if she would approve. I wonder if my constant address and redress of her would offend her. I can do everything for my mother in an attempt to know her, to refract her, to honour her, to recognise her, or to just touch her. Or I can do nothing. So, it's a well I keep going back to. She will be the heroine of the next novel, and I will do it again after that. She's not going away." Does he believe he will see her again? "Yes." What will happen? For the first time, he is momentarily stumped. "I don't know." Does the thought frighten him, or make him happy? A pause. "The idea of a cosmic reunion with Jean Helliker thrills me. But I'm in no hurry to get to it." Will he apologise to her, for revealing her imperfections to the world? "No. I take the best part of me and turn it into a vehicle for recognition, honorarium, rigour. You were taken from me 52 years ago. I want to take you, paradoxical woman, and render you iconic." I wonder why he's not more afraid of the world. "I'm not afraid of crime. But I am afraid of the world. I still have panic attacks." Nightmares? "No. But insomnia, yes. I sleep badly."

And his need to be alone, to lie in a dark room and think? It seems at odds with his taste for performing. He relishes book tours like few other authors I can think of, and this afternoon will film for a 'real crime' series he is presenting for Discovery (he will interview Lana Turner's daughter, Cheryl Crane, who killed Johnny Stompanato). He has even been known to compere a bus tour of LA's murder sites, one that included, or so I've read, the spot where his mother was found. "I spent so much time alone, lusting in vain, wanting to be somebody, that conquering one thing - the craft of fiction, and the marketing of it - came naturally. I'm a very accomplished public speaker. How many readings have you been to where someone will read for 40 minutes, burp, fart, pick their nose, lose their place, cough and do everything but take a s*** on stage. I read for 12 minutes, semi-memorised, and I'm on it! I'm electric."

He needs to get moving now. Crane is waiting. "Wanna have dinner with me tonight?" he says, signing my book. I'm so surprised, I don't have an excuse ready. "Yes," I say, in a thin voice. So this is what happens. At seven, he and Erika pick me up from my hotel in his flashy new Cadillac, and take me to an Indian restaurant. Our suppertime conversation is off the record. But I don't see why I shouldn't tell you how he strikes me second time around. Erika tells me that she sees a vulnerability in him, that this is "blazingly apparent" to her, and very "moving". I know what she means. For all that he's so obsessed with manners, he seems skinless in some way; he lacks the smooth, social carapace most of us use to get by. But being around him, you clench your buttocks and you walk on egg shells. You never know what he will do or say next - and this makes me (and, I think, Erika) nervous. The pair of them make loud but unconvincing jokes about his wild jealousy. We eat quickly, in the approved LA manner, and soon we're back on the sidewalk on our way to the big, silver car. Ellroy is ranting about something - I forget what - and in the gloom he suddenly barks like a dog. "Yank my chain!" he pants. "Yank my chain!" With a giggle, Erika mimes the action of jerking a dog's collar, and he twists his neck to one side in response. Back in my hotel room, for all that I am very tired and jet-lagged, it takes me a long time to get to sleep.

Perfidia (Knopf) is released on 11 September


Tell us which is your favourite Ellroy book in the comments


***
MORE BOOKS:

The 21 Best Raymond Chandler Quotes
Esquire Meets: Bret Easton Ellis
In Praise Of: Haruki Murakami
***