This piece is from 1843, our sister magazine of ideas, lifestyle and culture. It was published in the June/July 2019 issue.
On a dark Saturday afternoon in February James Ellroy, America’s pre-eminent crime novelist and chronicler of depravity and excess, was having problems with his central heating.
“It’s cold in here, isn’t it?” he said.
I agreed that it was. Ellroy, who is tall and bald, and looks like a cross between Michel Foucault and Uncle Fester from the Addams Family, got up and spent a few moments peering and poking at the thermostat. Then he announced that he would phone his girlfriend—and former wife—Helen Knode, a writer who has her own flat in the same apartment block near Union Station in Denver, Colorado. Knode was at home making turkey chilli. “She should come over and take a look,” he said. “This is not my metier.”
At bookshop readings and on TV chat-shows, Ellroy presents himself as “the Demon Dog of American fiction”, a confident huckster full of scurrilous gossip and risqué jokes. He has described this shtick as constituting about 7% of who he really is. “I like to fuck with people,” he said, by way of explanation. “Why mince words?” But as he wandered around his flat, trying to determine whether some barely audible sound was a train outside his window or a pipe stirring sluggishly to life, he seemed ungainly and boyish—even sweet.
His possessions are minimal: a few pieces of stark, mid-century furniture, a wall of cellophane-covered hardbacks, some classical CDs, a hi-fi, a boom box and an exercise machine. His fridge is empty apart from shrink-wrapped sausages. For ten years, Ellroy and Knode owned a red-furred bull terrier named Margaret, after his favourite British prime minister. (“She never liked me—she’d just follow me around and bark at me and oppress me furiously as if I was a Labour Party whip.”) These days Ellroy makes do with pictures of dogs and “my Gila monster”, a life-sized artist’s model of a lizard with whom he conducts imaginary conversations. There is no television or computer, no bills, papers or bric-a-brac. The only interruption to this order was the arrival of advance copies of his new novel, “This Storm”, out this summer.
It’s a lifestyle that is peaceful, housebound and nearly Amish in its lack of material indulgence. When I suggested that he seems quite frugal for a bestselling novelist several of whose books have been turned into movies, he replied that he likes to buy cars (he currently owns one car). On an average day, he will eat a bowl of plain oatmeal and drink several cups of black filter coffee, engage in various acts of “prayer and ponder” (he is a non-churchgoing Lutheran), check in with his assistant by fax or on the landline, and take naps. Apart from writing the occasional movie treatment or magazine piece, Ellroy’s only commitment is the monkish, monomaniacal pursuit of what he identifies as “God’s calling for me as a novelist”. “I feel like I’m the great American crime writer,” he told me one afternoon. He weighed the statement for a couple of seconds, as if scrolling through his rivals: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and so on. Then he said, “You can make that case.”
Ellroy’s breakthrough came in 1987 with “The Black Dahlia”, his seventh novel, which was based on a real-life murder. The novel was the first volume in his LA Quartet, a series of complex detective stories that doubled as a portrait of the city after the second world war. (In 1997, the third book, “L.A. Confidential”, was made into a film starring Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, and won two Oscars.) In Ellroy’s hands, the crime novel became a compound of historical saga, star-crossed romance, pastiche journalism and psychological case-study. His prose heaved with period slang and the books featured a mix of real and invented characters through which Ellroy explored the roots of criminal and even psychopathic behaviour. Dennis Lehane, an American novelist, told me that the LA Quartet is “the towering achievement of American crime fiction. It’s the monolith, the one that came in and casts its shadow over everything else”.
After completing the series, Ellroy wanted his next project to be a dense social portrait steeped in vice and crime but without being “beholden to a murder investigation”. The result, in 1995, was “American Tabloid”, perhaps his greatest novel and the beginning of a new sequence. The Underworld USA trilogy recounts major episodes in American history between 1958 and 1972—the Bay of Pigs, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, the Vietnam war—from the perspective of various invented hit men and hangers-on. Ellroy, who has described his work as an exercise in “moral art”, told me that he found the idea of “killing for money or for dubious ideology particularly horrible and conscienceless. To humanise these characters and to live inside their heads and to connect them to the rise of someone with the inflated reputation of a John F. Kennedy was just too good to pass up.”
Ellroy dislikes talk of prophecy or pertinence, but there are clear parallels between the worlds he created in the LA Quartet and the Underworld USA trilogy and today’s political scene. These volumes, which are being republished by Everyman’s Library this summer, offer a multi-dimensional portrait of American extremity: greasy-palmed complicity between politics and big business, rogue operatives and unchecked institutions, race hatred, police brutality, far-reaching federal investigations, corrupt land deals, lascivious and lying presidents, actress-molesting moguls and populist uprisings. As Knode said one evening at dinner, “It’s Ellroy’s world, we just live in it.”
He was born Lee Earle Ellroy in Los Angeles in 1948. His mother was a heavy-drinking, free-living nurse from German farming stock in Wisconsin. His father, 17 years her senior, was an accountant, highly competent but idle, who worked briefly as Rita Hayworth’s business manager. When Ellroy was six, his parents divorced. Ellroy lived with his mother but felt ashamed of her behaviour. He has frequently recalled his childhood view of her as “a drunk and a whore”. In June 1958 she was found, raped and strangled, in an ivy patch next to a school playing field in El Monte, California. The case was never solved.
Ellroy and his father didn’t talk about Geneva Hilliker Ellroy. “It was as if, after the coroner’s inquest, the shroud was dropped,” he said. Ellroy took refuge in crime fiction. His father, who was “never cheap”, would buy him at least a book a week, at Chevalier’s Books on Larchmont Boulevard. He estimates that during the summer after his mother died, he read at least 25 Hardy Boys novels. The experience was “a mediated dialogue on my mother’s death. Here I am—decidedly large and strange and prone to volatile curiosities, living with my old man, who talks to the TV and works infrequently and everyone thinks he’s my grandfather, and the un-house-broken dog urinating and defecating with abandon all over the place. And here is Everytown USA. Order is restored. The killer is identified and justice is enacted. And these nice-looking kids have nifty-looking girlfriends and a sidekick and cars and speedboats, and their widowed father is a policeman and has slick threads, and he’ll remarry sooner or later.”
For his 11th birthday, still in the thick of what he calls his “ambiguous bereavement”, Ellroy’s father bought him “The Badge”, a non-fiction book on crimes and law enforcement in LA. It contained a chapter on the rape and vivisection of a 22-year-old would-be starlet Elizabeth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia, a crime that Ellroy has described as “pure misogynist insanity”. That chapter “went through me like a jolt”, said Ellroy: “It was more shocking to me than my mother’s death.” He says his encounter with the case was “the formative experience of my life”.
When Ellroy wasn’t reading, he was acting out. “I’d do anything to get attention,” he said. In 1962 he was enrolled at Fairfax High School, a rare “white-trasher” in a swanky environment. He liked to rile his Jewish classmates and even attended American Nazi party meetings. (“You could not have imagined a more pathetic bunch of fools.”) In a mock election, he was the only kid who—partly for anti-Catholic reasons—voted for Nixon over Kennedy. Sometimes he broke into the homes of his richer neighbours to smell their underwear. But behind the bad behaviour, he felt neglected, frightened, hungry and lonely.
Things came to a head in late adolescence: “1965 was pretty heady for me,” he said. “I got kicked out of high school. I joined the army. I flew to basic training, in Fort Polk, Louisiana. I had a big crack-up. I was sent home. My dad was dying. I went back to Fort Polk. Then I returned to LA, because his death was imminent.” His father’s last discernible words to Ellroy were, “Try to pick up every waitress who serves you,” which he calls “a legacy I have fulfilled, with mixed results, dare I say”. After being expelled from the army, Ellroy moved to LA and spent his time boozing, shoplifting, “peeping around” and reading potboilers. At times he lived in Robert Burns Park. To survive, he’d sell his blood plasma. For kicks he’d drink scotch, inhale Benzedrex, smoke weed and annoy hippies (“I’d say ‘Bomb Vietnam’, things like that”). On the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, a woman caught him on a rooftop masturbating while high on uppers. He was once beaten up by a drag queen called Peaches. One morning, he woke up in San Francisco and wondered how he’d got there. He was arrested some 40 times, for driving under the influence, public drunkenness, shoplifting, trespassing and burglary.
In the mid-1970s Ellroy realised that substance abuse was impeding his other appetites. “I wanted to laugh, I wanted to read, I wanted girls, I wanted to sate my curiosities, I wanted to go to the movies. I loved art. I loved great music. I loved history. I loved looking at pictures in magazines.” He also had an idea for a novel. In 1977 Ellroy joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got clean: he liked the extremity of total abstinence. He found a job as a caddy at the Bel Air Country Club and, aged 30, began to write. His idea became “Brown’s Requiem”, published in 1981 as a little-noticed paperback. Around this time Ellroy walked into the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and told the proprietor, Otto Penzler, “I’m the next big one.” Penzler replied, “Would you forgive me if I reserve judgment?”
Ellroy wrote a series of straight genre novels before he fulfilled his own prophecy with “The Black Dahlia”. Another writer had already published a novel about the murder of Elizabeth Short, which had been turned into a film, but Ellroy realised that his own peculiar brew of experiences and sensibilities had furnished him with a unique perspective. “I’ve lived in that kind of male excess of booze, dope, girls, high-flying bullshit,” he says, but he is also a veteran of AA, a Christian, conservative, moralist and child of divorce whose mother was murdered. He is both far closer than most novelists to sinful conduct, and more willing to speak the language of moral and religious judgment. Unafraid to join the dots between his own life and his creative output, Ellroy says that his personal suffering “dogged me and informed the texts. Police officers charged with solving a series of baffling crimes, or government provocateurs and buffoons, or the authoritarian figure who needs to impose himself upon external events in order to plumb the secrets of his own identity—I’ve been able to exposit the lonely beating heart of those guys.”
One evening in February Ellroy embarked on a rare outdoor excursion—dinner with his friend Jerry Ackerman, a FBI agent and a novelist. Ackerman is a compact, balding man in his late 40s who shares Ellroy’s taste for law and order, mid-century Los Angeles, traditional manners, porkpie hats and beef. Ocean Prime, a restaurant near Ellroy’s apartment, has numerous steak options and elaborately courteous waiters. As we headed out Knode whispered to me: “When people talk about the Denver food scene, this isn’t what they mean.”
Conversation touched on Ellroy’s current reading, the thrillers of Daniel Silva, which concern an art restorer who is an agent for Mossad, Israel’s secret service. (“It’s a preposterous combination of trades,” Ellroy said.) Noting how many historical events surface—the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, the Black September conflict—he said, “It’s like a Middle Eastern Ellroy-lite.”
“Is that a blurb?” Ackerman asked.
“Yeah, I think Daniel Silva, who outsells me about 40 to one, would really appreciate that. ‘I’m better than him’—Ellroy.”
Ackerman had brought along material for Ellroy’s next novel—a book about the US Treasury. His books often begin with a moment of inspiration. He says that the idea for “The Big Nowhere” (1988) – a conspiracy novel from the LA Quartet that touches on homosexuality, communism, the LA Dodgers, anti-Mexican violence and the legacy of the Holocaust—came to him in a second and a half on a lonely Saturday night in the winter of 1986. Its even more intricate successor, “L.A. Confidential”, also occurred to him “in a single rush”. Then comes the graft.
With help from an assistant, Ellroy researches and then writes a detailed synopsis that’s often as long as the book itself. (Without it, he says he wouldn’t be able to “write a book worth a shit”.) Then he flies to New York to discuss the outline with his editors at Knopf, his American publisher. Finally, he says, “I execute at great length and revise in great detail.” A working day can begin as early as 1.45am. “I’ve got the outline typed up on the desk. I get up, say my prayers, have a cup of cold coffee I made the night before, get it in my system quicker.”
Ellroy called his taste in language “very precise”. Small imperfections “leap out at me”. He avoids semi-colons and shifts indiscriminately to the present tense—“which drives copy editors crazy”. “If you want to be very good at this,” he said, “the road is consciousness. Am I repeating this motif? Is this plausible? Does this track logically? Are the paragraph breaks in the right place? Is this information exposited too early? When should this man meet this woman? That was the gradual electrifying revelation – if one has native talent of the level I possess, then it’s about consciousness.”
Ellroy says of Knode that “There’s no one else for me but her.” They met in 1990 and they married a year later: “The aggregate of all the other women I’ve known don’t equal Helen in soul, gravity or native intellect.” The two share a tendency towards solitude and a strict morality. But whereas Ellroy failed to finish high school, Knode has a master’s from Cornell and worked for a magazine, LA Weekly, which sprang from the counterculture Ellroy detested. He is loping and saturnine, husky and housebound, with a tendency to bark, bay and growl; Knode is prone to gales of laughter and micro-bursts of surprise. She exudes an air of sensible busyness as she zips about the city in one of her many well-cut trench-coats.
When Ellroy and Knode met he had recently entered a period of conscious self-restraint, even self-punishment. Editing “L.A. Confidential” he had turned against flourish, metaphor and scene-setting, developing a habit of “cutting words and cutting words” that resulted in a kind of staccato shorthand. He was also growing more isolated. His behaviour was characterised, Knode told me, by “churning, compulsion, unreachability, one crazy idea after another. This was a guy who never had a moment of peace.”
In 1993, as he was working on “American Tabloid”, Knode took action. She felt that he needed to confront the fact of his mother’s murder more directly. That Christmas she gave Ellroy a framed copy of a newspaper photograph that depicted him in the moments after he was told his mother had been killed. Soon afterwards a journalist in California, who had access to his mother’s police file, contacted him. Ellroy’s response—not the one Knode intended – was to attempt to solve the case, more than three decades on, and write up his findings.
“My Dark Places”, a memoir that explored the immediate aftermath and longer legacy of his mother’s death, was published in 1996. Ellroy recognises that the book was, at best, a partial reckoning with his personal trauma. At home things carried on much as before. Ellroy has described his conduct as boorish, oblivious, callow, heedless, isolated, “preposterously male”.
In 2001 Ellroy suffered episodes of sleeplessness and hypochondria and, eventually, a nervous breakdown. He became addicted to sedatives and sleeping pills. When I asked Ellroy what might have averted the breakdown, he said, “A different mind, a different soul. It was everything I’d suppressed in my life.” He also blames “The Cold Six Thousand”, the bestselling middle chapter of the USA trilogy, which represents the furthest extreme of his impulse to cut. Stig Abell, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, says this book is his favourite Ellroy novel but also “the logical acme point. He doesn’t give us a break, ever. There’s an element of obsession-compulsion.”
Ellroy describes the style as “chaos”: “Pete rotates. Wayne rotates. Pete moves stateside. Laurent’s there. Ditto Flash. They funnel stateside. Stanton stays in-country. Ditto Mesplède. Tiger Kamp runs low-supervised. The war escalates. More troops pass through. The kadre hits Saigon half-assed.”
For Knode, the novel reflected Ellroy’s frazzled state. She recalled thinking, “We don’t need any literary criticism here—we just need a doctor!” As things turned out, there were numerous doctors—and an actor. When Ellroy was in psychiatric lockdown, a friend put Knode in touch with Carrie Fisher. “She was a big help,” Knode says. “She knew everything. In the middle of James’s crack-up, she gave me a better picture of the modern medical landscapes and the gaps in its treatment than I’d had in two years.”
Ellroy said that Fisher died with drugs in her system.
“She never claimed to be clean, Big Dog,” Knode said. “She just claimed to know everything about it.”
Ellroy kicked the drugs but continued to show signs of collapse. In “The Hilliker Curse” (2010), his second, more candid attempt to grapple with his mother’s legacy, he quotes a letter from Knode recalling that during this time he would drive his car too fast, dribble, wear shit-stained trousers, and audibly masturbate while her family was visiting. She got tired of waiting for him to change. Knode introduced the idea of an open marriage, but in the end it was Ellroy who met someone else—a left-wing academic named Joan. Ellroy and Knode divorced in April 2006. But they continued to talk on the phone almost every day.
Ellroy’s relationship with Joan was shortlived. After they separated, he moved to Los Angeles—the first time he had lived there in 25 years. “So, I’m alone—I’m gassing, I’m yearning.” He was looking southbound out of his window on Rossmore Avenue when he had another “synaptic flash: forlorn-looking Japanese, in wintertime, in a bus, going up a mountain road in a snowstorm to the Manzanar internment camp in the High Sierras. Immediately I knew: four novels, World War Two.”
He and Knode reunited in 2015 when he was promoting “Perfidia”, the first of his new LA Quartet. Knode was living in Denver, so Ellroy bought a flat down the hall. Knode lives more conventionally than him. Her apartment has a kitchen table, wallpaper and a comfortable-looking sofa. The art on the walls doesn’t all involve dogs or crime.
One evening Ellroy and I had dinner at Knode’s place. It was Saturday night—fight night. Ellroy was excited about the boxing but also still distracted by the problems with “the fucking heat”. As we entered he turned to me. “Helen wants you to take off your shoes. I don’t go for that shit myself.” On a table in the hall was a copy of “This Storm” and a post-it note saying “Read me now”.
Knode and Ellroy watch boxing on two channels, Showtime and the Zone, which is run by Eddie Hearn, a boxing promoter. Knode said that Hearn had revolutionised their lives, but when the Zone stuttered on her Apple TV he was held responsible for ruining their evening. The refrain “Fuck Eddie Hearn” soon established itself. When he wasn’t yelling at the TV, Ellroy refused Knode’s offer of tea with the formula, “Fuck that shit.” He requested a cup of black coffee, and Knode frowned.
“I gots to have it, baby,” he said. “Just one cup.”
“I’m not underwriting this,” she replied.
“I know—it is late.”
Knode told me that though Ellroy’s propensity to repeat certain jokes and riffs is unchanged, in other ways he’s grown up. He is able to “listen now in a way he wasn’t able to before. He’s burned out a lot of the bad shit.” She mentioned the dinners with Jerry Ackerman—regular meet-ups with a friend. He has a healthier relationship with the murder of Elizabeth Short. And after many years of living exclusively with his own books, he has started to read again. His current lifestyle, though oatmeal-heavy and pet-free, constitutes a loosening of the reins.
And he has been adding words. Like Ellroy’s earlier books, “This Storm” has short paragraphs, single-clause sentences and heightened, at times wearying repetition. Ellroy acknowledges that he still makes “purportedly clean and direct” writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway seem “absolutely florid”. But with help from Knode and his editors he is also now convinced that, if he wants the books to have “emotional resonance”, he needs to open things up, if only a little. He calls this “a new style”—“the perfect balance” of the precise and lyrical. It’s as if, over the last decade, he has realised the need to embrace, if not equally, the two sides of his nature—wildness and control, rectitude and romanticism, “emotionality” and a spotless sideboard.
On my last morning in Denver, I visited Ellroy at his flat and Knode dropped by. She asked if we were getting tired of “talking about Ellroy”. He said that we were not. Reflecting on his current circumstances, Ellroy says that he’s feeling “just outrageous good will for people”, before admitting that “I can be short-tempered and I can be rancorous and all these things, if people are pushing up against me or taking liberties”—for example, when waiters use the greeting “Hi, guys.” Then he paused, searching around for words: “I’ve just never been this happy.”
His new work reflects that. Without stinting on traditional Ellroy pleasures, it contains more hope and consolation. Fans of Ellroy’s earlier work may feel that he’s gone soft. Instead of evil or mercenary violence, and the “tableau of madness, hatefulness and historical dysfunction” constructed in “The Cold Six Thousand”, “This Storm” is concerned with “friendship, bravery, the ability of individuals of a wide stripe to supersede their differences and limitations and tell the truth to themselves.” Even the protagonist—“a monstrous psychopath, a fascist, a racial provocateur”—proves himself vulnerable and capable of fraternal love for a Japanese man. “This Storm” offers, says Ellroy, “the thrill of human beings changing”.
“You’ve taken a big breath and relaxed,” Knode told him. “It’s a lot more lucid, less internally tortured. I can just feel the oozing humanity in this one.”
Ellroy looked lovingly in her direction. “I’m honoured.”
“You should be,” she said. “You did the work.” Ellroy gave a growl of assent.
Leo Robson is a freelance journalist who has written for the New Yorker and the New Statesman