Wednesday, September 23, 1998

James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction

Posted By on Wed, Sep 23, 1998 at 12:00 AM

"Tragedy can't be taught," says neo-noir crime writer James Ellroy, the subject of Reinhard Jud's 1993 documentary profile. "I think the writer has to bring (to their work) his or her own sense of the world as a crazy, sexed-up, brutal, awful, horrifying, delightful, wonderful place."

Ellroy ought to know. When he was a child living in L.A. in the '50s, his alcoholic and promiscuous mother was brutally murdered. As a teenager, he became a minor delinquent and petty pervert, breaking into people's homes not to steal but merely to prowl, pausing long enough to sniff the ladies' underwear. By his 20s he was a serious alcoholic, his most sustained employment being as a caddie, another sad loser heading for an unmourned death.

But an encounter with AA helped him stay sober long enough to unleash the deeper obsessions which ultimately saved him. During his dark years he had avidly consumed crime fiction, from the quality stuff by Chandler and Hammett to the hackish gruel by their many minions, reading not so much in search of escape as for meaning. He wanted to make some sense of the sprawling, chaotic and dangerous city he was born in, the city which had murdered his mother (the crime was never solved).

Once sober he began to write, in earnest and with the useful knowledge, as he says in the film, that "writing is concentration." Slowly his themes came into focus and, after a few derivative but impressive efforts, he hit his stride, developing complex characters improvising a livable morality in an eternally corrupt system. His crowning achievement thus far has been the L.A. Quartet of novels, which includes the successfully filmed L.A. Confidential (1997).

Ellroy comes across somewhat self-consciously in Jud's film as a "character," someone who likes to throw back his head and bay like a dog, one who literally bursts into a book-signing session at one point and starts maniacally scrawling morbid inscriptions for the gleeful customers. But there's no question that at heart he's for real and that the baroque nihilism of his novels is infused with genuine insight. He's a fascinating personality and it's unfortunate that Jud has padded his profile with long and unnecessary montages of L.A.'s fabled underbelly, scenes so familiar to most moviegoers that they barely register anymore.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at


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