James Ellroy, "Wholesome"? L.A.'s Crime King Lightens Up (a Little) With 'Perfidia'
This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If the Pacific Dining Car didn't actually exist, James Ellroy might have invented the place for one of his novels. The 93-year-old restaurant in downtown Los Angeles — with its dark wood paneling, dimly glowing brass light fixtures and kitschy green velour booths — reeks of old-time Hollywood noir. The only thing missing is a dead dame on the floor with a steak knife sticking out of her back.
"I came here for the first time with my father for my 10th birthday," the best-selling crime author tells THR, settling into his chair at his usual table in a back room. "We ordered shrimp cocktails and steak. It felt like a big deal." Ellroy has been a regular at the Dining Car ever since, describing it as his informal office. More than that, the eatery has been the setting for some of the biggest moments of his life. That booth over there, for instance, across the dining room? That's where he met his second wife.
Now 66, Ellroy is about to release his 14th novel, Perfidia (on shelves Sept. 9; read an exclusive excerpt here), in which L.A.'s ultimate local author — certainly among the town's most colorful literary figures — once again delves into the dark corners of the city he's been writing about for more than 30 years. This time, though, he's turning the calendar back a decade with a prequel to his postwar crime thrillers that takes place in the early months of World War II. It involves the brutal murder of a Japanese-American family; a brilliant Japanese-American detective (who happens to be gay); fictional encounters with Hollywood icons of the era (like Bette Davis and Errol Flynn); descriptions of the all too nonfictional internment of Japanese-Americans in California after Pearl Harbor; and so many appearances by characters from Ellroy novels that there's even an appendix listing who they are. All that and, for the first time, a hint of a totally new flavor in an Ellroy novel — something that could almost be described as being close to joyousness.
"It's the best book I've ever written," he says with his characteristic literary bravado. "It's more wholesome, more accessible, more human and has more of my heart and soul than all of my other books combined. This book is much more tied to an actual historical event, both the internment camps and the first months of World War II. But I'm rewriting L.A. history to my own specifications. It's like your dog — she's always marking her turf, right? That's what I'm doing. I'm pissing, leaving my mark. I'm creating a secret human infrastructure of big, public events."
The event that turned Ellroy into a crime writer took place just a few months after that 10th birthday dinner with his dad. His mother, Jean Hilliker, who had come to L.A., like so many others, to seek fame and fortune as a film actress (but ended up a nurse instead), was brutally murdered. She was strangled and her body dumped in bushes. The slaying bore some similarity to an infamous 1947 killing, which understandably obsessed Ellroy in his youth (and would inspire his sixth novel, 1987's Black Dahlia, a breakout in his career). After her (unsolved) murder, Ellroy went to live with his father, an accountant who had been divorced from his mother for several years. The boy struggled at school, engaged in petty theft, broke into the houses of girls he liked (to "sniff their undergarments," he confesses with a perverted smile), dropped out of Fairfax High School, drifted, took drugs and drank too much. Finally, at 27, while working as a caddy at Hillcrest Country Club (he once carried Milton Berle's golf clubs), he decided to clean up his act. He quit drinking and took up writing.
His first novel, Brown's Requiem, inspired by the caddies he knew, came out in 1981. But it wasn't until Black Dahlia — his first book set in postwar Los Angeles — that he started garnering serious attention. In quick succession, he wrote the rest of what would come to be known as his "L.A. Quartet" — The Big Nowhere came out in 1988, L.A. Confidential in 1990 and White Jazz in 1992. Then, in 1997, Curtis Hanson adapted and directed Confidential; the film nabbed nine Oscar nominations and made Russell Crowe a star. Suddenly, James Ellroy was a household name — and a sellable one in Hollywood. Four of his novels have been made into films, though they haven't been quite as successful as Confidential (2006's Black Dahlia made only $49 million worldwide; 1995's American Tabloid, optioned by Bruce Willis in 2002 and Tom Hanks' Playtone in 2009, continues to spin its wheels in development).
In many ways, Ellroy is the perfect prose laureate for a city like Los Angeles. He's as interesting off the page as he is on. Part nerdy author, part incorrigible wolf and all outrageous provocateur, he's assembled a well-rehearsed public image that fits nicely with a city that prides itself on its iconoclastic urban attitudes. "Good evening, peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps," he starts almost every public reading. "I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl …"
But Perfidia, the first of a planned quartet, is Ellroy's first effort at writing with a somewhat lighter, brighter color palette. It still explores L.A.'s seedy underbelly, still deals with murder and mayhem. But the book also crackles with the author's unabashed love of the city and the era when women wore wavy dos and hourglass dresses with huge shoulder pads. "It was an enormous time," he says of the 1940s, growing animated. "Big-band jazz, great-looking women, high-class nightclubs!"
"L.A. is where his heart is," says Sonny Mehta, his longtime editor at Knopf. "And [the '40s] are a natural period for James. It's a city facing that moment of turmoil."
Perfidia might even be the book that fulfills Ellroy's long-standing ambition to create a television show. He has a pile of unproduced TV scripts (he's had better luck with film and has just been tapped to write a remake of Laura for Fox 2000) and dreams of making the "filmed equivalent" of one of his novels that would "explicate a single wild-ass crime … solely from the viewpoint of the cops. No family shit, no accompanying political shit, nothing from the viewpoint of the killer." He certainly has pitched to enough TV executives over the years. Indeed, for some Hollywood suits, getting pitched by Ellroy is the most entertaining part of their jobs. "He has such an unbelievable ability to articulate in long, complicated but riveting sentences," says Showtime's David Nevins (who has taken a slew of meetings with Ellroy but hasn't purchased anything). "He doesn't speak the way that the rest of us speak."
He doesn't write the way many people do, either. All his books, including Perfidia, have been handwritten on notebook paper. He doesn't use a computer, the Internet or a cellphone. He doesn't have cable. Ellroy says there's so much chaos in his mind that he needs a pared-down, almost hermetic life in order to write. "I'm very much a hide-out- in-a-dark-room, sniff-the-world-at-a-distance, go-back-in-myself kind of guy," he says.
Not surprisingly, that lifestyle can be murder on marriages. His first, in the 1980s, to Mary Doherty, fell apart after two years. Ellroy and his second wife, Helen Knode (author of the 2003 novel The Ticket Out), briefly lived in New Canaan, Conn., and Kansas City, Kan., in the 1990s but moved back to L.A. in the early 2000s after Ellroy had a nervous breakdown while on a book tour in Europe (he read the Bible compulsively and convinced himself he was riddled with cancer). They divorced in 2005 but remain close friends, talking on the phone almost every night. These days, when Ellroy is craving human interaction, he keeps it brief and simple — the obsessive quest for love that he chronicled in his 2010 memoir The Hilliker Curse seems to have cooled a bit. "I'll go out and do errands," he says, "just to see the world."
Or he'll hop in the car and drive from his Bronson Canyon home to downtown L.A., to the corner of Sixth and Witmer, and have a meal at his favorite restaurant, the place where he celebrated turning 10 with his dad and maybe had his last moment of childhood innocence. But he seems OK with that. "The novel," he says, leaning back in his chair, "is the great love of my life."
"I want my readers to get obsessed and inhale these books at the mad pace of history."