How did James Ellroy become one of the greatest crime novelists of his generation? He had a traumatic upbringing in Los Angeles and El Monte. His mother was murdered when he was ten years old. He became hooked on drugs and alcohol, served jailtime and was frequently homeless and had several near-death experiences. All of this happened before he wrote a word. Ellroy’s only remaining family, living thousands of miles away from him in Wisconsin, assumed he was dead. They were shocked to later discover he had become a bestselling novelist. While they were relieved, It must have been a mystery to them.
Solving this mystery has been my driving force as Ellroy’s biographer. Indeed, it is a question that has fascinated me ever since I became hooked on Ellroy’s writing after first reading American Tabloid, his brilliant novel on the events leading up to the Kennedy assassination. In a sense, the question answers itself. Writers are often motivated by trauma and lonely childhoods. This compels them to open an empty page and transform it into worlds of limitless imagination. Still, we take Ellroy’s literary achievements too much for granted. Ellroy wrote six novels (including three in his short-lived Lloyd Hopkins series) before he penned his first bestseller The Black Dahlia. Ellroy’s Dahlia novel portrayed the events surrounding the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short in LA. The case had fascinated Ellroy ever since he was a child, given the parallels between Elizabeth Short’s unsolved murder and the murder of his mother Jean Ellroy. From The Black Dahlia onwards, Ellroy has been unstoppable. The success of the book taught him to trust his instincts, which for Ellroy translates as trust your obsessions. But to get this point, it’s often difficult for a novelist to write six books that sell badly and survive. Ellroy was frequently in danger of being dropped by his publisher and not finding another outlet for his fiction. Ellroy’s professional relationship with his first publisher Avon was short-lived, partly because even his early thirties Ellroy was still a callow youth and strutted around the Avon offices. He laboured under the delusion that writers were permanently secured by their talent, not realising that in Avon’s eyes he was just a midlist author who was unlikely to write a bestseller. As Avon editor Nellie Sabin put it after reading his third manuscript, the ultimately rejected ‘LA Death Trip’:
[It was] page after page of slicing and dicing women. I thought his writing was getting worse instead of better. I asked other people to read it too, and no one was enthusiastic. So, I had to send it back. p.113
In one sense Ellroy’s confidence was vindicated. You can’t keep talent like his down. And after Avon rejected ‘LA Death Trip’ Ellroy heavily revised the manuscript, and it was eventually published as Blood on the Moon with the Mysterious Press and adapted into the film Cop. Ellroy had taken the setback and overcome it to forge new professional relationships with editor Otto Penzler and agent Nat Sobel, both of whom would serve him well for decades. This is the untold story of Ellroy’s rise to prominence as an author. But Ellroy the author is only half the story. His determination to push the boundaries of crime fiction is paralleled by an insatiable passion for women. I spoke to many of Ellroy’s ex-partners, most of whom, surprisingly, had very fond memories of him. His relationships with women followed a similar pattern. He would storm into their life, wooing them with his intense charisma and generosity. Soon he would be talking about marriage and children, but then the romance would end abruptly. Either his partner inadvertently triggered some dormant trauma or Ellroy would start obsessing about another woman. As one of his partners put it to me:
It was very strange, sort of a whirlwind. He pursued me I guess is the simplest way to put it, and it was really fun at the beginning and really intense. We were together every day or if we weren’t together, it was a three-hour phone call in the evening. At the time it seemed all magical and ultimately the wheels started coming off and it became clear to me that that was just his MO and really none of it had anything to do with me. P.268
Ultimately, Ellroy was in love with the chase more than the women themselves. He titled his memoir The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women. Some reviewers were stunned by the stark candour of that memoir, just as I was sometimes taken aback at how open Ellroy was with me in describing his harrowing but often inspiring life. The hundreds of hours I spent talking to Ellroy was just one component in the years of research required to write Love Me Fierce in Danger. I believe the result is not just a biography of Ellroy, but a book which provides an important chapter in the history of modern American literature.
Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy is published by Bloomsbury.
Love Me Fierce In Danger: The Life of James Ellroy uncovers the life-story of one of the most fascinating and provocative figures in American literature. Tracing the history of Ellroy’s life and family, Steven Powell reveals how his parents were migrants to Los Angeles, and how Ellroy’s upbringing in LA, always on the periphery of Hollywood, had a substantial influence on his later work as a novelist. Using new sources, this book uncovers Ellroy’s family secrets including the mysterious first marriage of his mother Jean Ellroy, which happened eighteen years before her brutal, unsolved murder. Her death marked the start of a long and turbulent road for James Ellroy that includes alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, and jail time. Steven Powell sheds new light on how Ellroy managed to turn his life around and become a bestselling crime author of such classics as The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential. This biography is the untold story of how Ellroy created a literary persona for himself as the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, giving him a celebrity status and notoriety that few authors can match. However, his success comes at a high cost that few readers are aware of. Two divorces, a nervous breakdown, and a relapse into addiction are just some of the traumas he endures in his pursuit of literary greatness. To his admirers Ellroy is a literary genius who has reinvented crime fiction. To his detractors he is a reactionary, overrated figure. Love Me Fierce In Danger examines the enigma of an author who has striven for critical acclaim and often courted controversy with equal zealotry.
Steven Powell is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Liverpool. He is the editor of Conversations with James Ellroy (2012) and The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy’s Noir World (2018). His previous books include James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction (2016).
You can follow Steven Powell on Facebook and you can also find him on Twitter @EllroyReader