As successful as he is talented, Ellroy’s renowned staccato prose has attracted a deluge of fans and plaudits over the years. The American’s passion for bringing an array of crooked characters – many of them brutally so – to life on the page has seen him produce an exceptional list of books that have been gripping readers for the best part of four decades.
I first came across his work in the early 90s when I was getting into the crime genre. Looking for something at the other end of the spectrum to the cosy mysteries I’d been reading, I spotted on the bookshelves of my local indie a copy of Brown’s Requiem (his debut, published in 1981) and delved in. Boy, was I rewarded. The heavily-clipped writing style immediately appealed; darker and edgier than anything I’d read before, such an unsentimental tone to it, so authoritative, so knowing. He seemed to have a vice-like grip on both his characters’ motivations and how the world worked within a corrupt environment, making the story feel authentic to the core.
There was even better to come. Clandestine and Silent Terror (the latter was also published as Killer on the Road) continued exploiting the same themes of corruption and evil, before Ellroy catapulted to fame with what became known as the ‘LA Quartet’ (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz from 1987-92). I actually read these out of order first time around as I had difficulty tracking down The Big Nowhere in the pre-digital age, but they all work as cracking standalones.
Many of his works are intrinsically linked to real-life events, most notably the Black Dahlia being a high-profile murder case from 1947. Ellroy also mixed fact with fiction by using various political elements that led up to the JFK hit for his densely-plotted ‘Underworld Trilogy’ of American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover (published between 1995-2009).
The mean streets of post-WW2 Los Angeles have had a huge influence on his life and career, a period of course dripping with noir-esque imagery and nostalgia. The ruthless edge Ellroy brings to his work appears to come from his thirst to depict a variety of dishonest and damaged characters from all walks of life, including elite political circles. Put simply, no one writes about bad guys doing bad things as convincingly as Ellroy.
His tastes for dark scepticism and the callous things in life can also be connected to a traumatic incident in his childhood. When he was 10, his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, was raped and murdered. The case remains unsolved, despite Ellroy himself teaming up with a retired homicide detective to try and dig up new leads over an intense 15-month period in the 90s – an investigation that he chronicled in the non-fiction book, My Dark Places.
When discussing his own work, Ellroy has never been shy to place himself on the highest of pedestals, often using his media appearances to enforce his reputation as an overpowering presence as well as a hardboiled nihilist. He once said: ‘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.’
And also: ‘I’m the demon dog with the hog-log, 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 . . . these books will leave you reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned.’
At 6ft 3in tall, Ellroy naturally comes across as a larger-than-life character, and when he trots out some of the above quotes, he clearly stands out a mile from the more modest, understated approach adopted by many authors in public. But that’s the way it should be with inimitable stylists. His work is different to other crime writers, and it’s fitting that his personality is too. Literature needs a brazen force like James Ellroy.