Greater Minds: James Ellroy

  •  James Ellroy claims his mother’s murder is key to understanding who he was but not who he is.
  • His obsessions kept him happy when he was a homeless drug addict, then he channelled them into creating fiction.
  • Ellroy claims to be a natural authoritarian although his novels often portray a corrupt police force.
  • Ellroy likes dogs and hopes to meet the Hound of the Baskervilles.

ALA The American Library Association (CC / Flickr)

On 15th January 1947, the mutilated body of 22-year old Elizabeth Short was found on a street in Los Angeles. The press nicknamed her ‘The Black Dahlia’. The case generated so much attention that the LAPD received over 50 confessions but found none of them credible. The case remains unsolved.

On 22nd June 1958, Geneva Odelia Ellroy was raped and strangled, also in Los Angeles. She was separated from her husband and was raising her 10-year old son, James Ellroy. The case remains unsolved.

In 1987, James Ellroy published The Black Dahlia, in which a morally bankrupt detective finds redemption through his obsession with justice for Elizabeth Short. It was not Ellroy’s first novel, but it was the first to achieve widespread acclaim.

On 1st December 2014, James Ellroy was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s Hardtalk. Ellroy is nothing if not a performer and as usual with greater minds, the interview itself is far more interesting than anything I’m likely to say about it.

The novel as catharsis

There are authors who insist their work is a product of their imagination offering no more insight into their psyche than their toenail clippings. James Ellroy is not one of them. He claims his mother’s murder engendered a fascination with the criminal and social history of Los Angeles that informs his novels. He explains in the clip below, excerpted from the interview above:

His mother’s murder is, he says, ‘key to understanding the work that I do but it’s not the key to me as an individual now’. The implication is that Ellroy’s substance abuse and petty crime  in his 20s was a response to his mother’s murder.


David Zellaby (CC / Flickr)

His obsession is reflected in The Black Dahlia, which builds a fictional structure around the real life murder of Elizabeth Short. ‘The Black Dahlia’ could have been a morality tale of its time. The bright lights of Hollywood lured a young woman from her home in smalltown Massachusetts, but her dreams remained unrealised and she met with a bad end. Ellroy’s version of Short was a prostitute and a fantasist, which owes more to the media’s embellishment of her story than anything known of Short herself.

Ellroy’s embrace of Freudian analysis makes it tempting to relate his introduction to ‘female sexuality’ through his mother to his sexualised portrayal of Elizabeth Short. It’s even more tempting to suggest that he was seeking some sort of closure for the loss of his mother by resolving another unsolved murder in fiction, but Ellroy has made his feelings about closure known in another interview:

‘I would love to find the man who invented closure and shove a giant closure plaque up his ass.’

The delinquent turned author

In spite of what has been said elsewhere, Ellroy insists that he was always happy, even in his years of drug abuse and homelessness. ‘You know why? I’m easily distracted. I’m easily obsessed.’

Being easily obsessed sounds more conducive to being a productive author than a happy man, but Ellroy claims to have channelled his personality into ‘a productive, sober life’. Like Elizabeth Gilbert, who I pontificated about a few months ago, Ellroy is wary of the myth of the writer as a tortured genius.


Katy Stoddard (CC / Flickr)

He also said, ‘If I’m not yearning for some woman, I’m yearning for history itself’. Yearning for anything, let alone ‘some woman’, does not sound like the formula for a happy life. It was one of the many contradictions in the interview. Ellroy presents himself using the techniques of the mystery writer, dangling enough information to intrigue without explaining and inducing a subconscious discordance with subtle contradictions. I would love to know how much of Ellroy himself is in the persona he presents in the interview, but I’m sure Ellroy himself would be the last to admit it.

His relationship with the history of Los Angeles certainly sounds obsessive. He refuses to touch mobile phones or computers in order to stay immersed in the past. He dismissed Sackur’s suggestion that his description of the internment Japanese-Americans during the Second World War was a comment on the Bush-era Patriot Act. His objection was less to do with his opinion of the Patriot Act than a simple lack of interest in anything that happened after the early 1970s.

It’s impossible not to wonder what Freud would have to say about obsession with the past in a man whose mother was murdered. If the question was put to Ellroy, I suspect his answer would be far more memorable than informative.

Ellroy as an authoritarian


Rynerson Bail Bonds (CC / Flickr)

The LAPD of Ellroy’s LA Quartet is a corrupt and racist organisation in which brutality is admired, incompetence is normal and abuse of power is winked at. I was as surprised as Sackur when Ellroy described himself as a ‘natural born authoritarian’ who always sides with the detectives. He even claimed the beating of Rodney King, which sparked off the 1992 Los Angeles riots, was irresponsibly reported. Ellroy himself was arrested and imprisoned in the 1970s, so it’s safe to assume his own relations with the LAPD have not always been cordial.

He claims good and evil are clear in his fiction, which was not my experience of reading it. I’ve never read anything that fitted the description of ‘noir’ so well because there is so little good to be found between Ellroy’s pages.

If some of his characters are on the ‘tortuous path to redemption’ he describes, the redemption is not found through the mores of the LAPD. It may be true, as he says, that his criminals are far worse than his detectives, but very few of his detectives would last five minutes in a regulated and accountable police force.

‘If it takes hitting a child molester with a phone book to secure his conviction and ultimate imprisonment, or one way ticket to the gas chamber, then I’m on the side of the guys who wield the phone book,’

The statement begs a question that his novels do not shirk from. How do the people wielding the phone book know they’re hitting a child molester? If they had solid evidence, they could send him to the gas chamber without resorting to phone books.


Owen Blacker (CC / Flickr)

It’s not a question Ellroy answers, or even seems willing to address in the interview. Perhaps Ellroy puts more complexity into his fiction than he’s willing to expose through his public persona. Only he knows.

Ellroy repeatedly professes an affection for dogs, preferably dangerous ones, and concludes by identifying with them: ‘I bark, yeah, I bark. I bay!’. After the interview, he said he was planning to travel to Dartmoor to search for the Hound of the Baskervilles. Let’s hope they found each other.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification
One comment on “Greater Minds: James Ellroy
  1. Great post! I like very much Ellroy, yet I ignored many of the things about him mentioned here…

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