There are not many stories left buried in James Ellroy’s past. In 1996, at the age of 48, he penned his memoirs, in which he paired his life story with that of his dead mother — Jean Ellroy, a nurse found strangled and beaten in the bushes of suburban Los Angeles in 1958, when her son was 10. By the time My Dark Places was published, Ellroy had told the story of his mother’s unsolved murder so often it became rote; he recited it to journalists with all the passion of a man reading his grocery list. But he had to tell the story, because it explained why he became a writer, a teller of iniquitous tales. “My death gave you a voice,” Jean told her boy, from the big sleep.He also liked to talk about how he spent his young years stealing, guzzling booze and sipping weed, spouting hollow racist jive, bouncing in and out of the army, sniffing the panties of Los Angeles’ well-to-do beav. Ellroy loved to tell those stories. They helped sell the books, his long, shorthand masterpieces about morally bankrupt men perpetrating murder and mayhem beneath the security blanket of authority and power. Among them: The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, American Tabloid, White Jazz and, now, The Cold Six Thousand (just out from Knopf). Those stories made him money, so he told them and torqued them. They gave him cred. They made his rep — the Demon Dog, barking at shadows.
But Ellroy has one last secret to spill. “It’s one of the few degraded stories from my youth that I’d never told my wife,” he says. Over the phone, he speaks in a soft, hushed tone, like that of a coconspirator hatching plans, so listen up. This is the story — one more, anyway — that answers the Big Question: Why, for the last 20 years, has James Ellroy brooded on crime and corruption, whether in Los Angeles, Vietnam, Dallas, Las Vegas or Washington, D.C.? He starts with the simple answer: “You get to be the guy who does it. You get to be the guy who writes the book.” He means he gets to be the guy who, in The Cold Six Thousand, beats the hell out of Jack Ruby and convinces him to plug Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas Police Department HQ. He gets to be the guy who makes love to women who are much stronger than their weak-willed men. He gets to be the guy who kills Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. He gets to go to Vietnam, make heroin and bring it back to sell to the blacks. He gets to be J. Edgar Hoover. He gets to be wicked. And he gets to suffer.
But what makes a man want to wallow in such malevolence, especially a man who actually abhors the weak and immoral? The answer can be found in the summer of 1960. James is 12 years old. He attends a junior high school full of “shtick-happy smart Jews and rich-ass WASPs.” He doesn’t fit, but the kids groove on politics, and Ellroy catches the virus: John Kennedy, funny-looking and funny-sounding, is about to become the Democratic candidate for president. James wants to watch the convention. His pussy-hound old man says no, and sends him off to Woodcraft Rangers camp 40 miles northwest of L.A. The old man had his reasons.
“And I was reading at the time From Here to Eternity by James Jones — the epic novel about the U.S. Army in Pearl Harbor before the attack,” Ellroy recalls. “It’s my first adult mainstream novel I can recall reading. It’s all about the corruption of institutions, it’s about adult sexuality, it’s about men and women and their ambiguous relationships, and it’s about the unvarnished ugly world of men in general. I’m obsessed, shocked, horrified, appalled, wounded and enthralled by this book, and I can’t take it with me to camp because it’s a library book. The old man’s got an agenda here, and I don’t know what it is. He shoots my skinny ass off to Woodcraft Rangers camp, where it’s a big, fat fuckin’ drag. I don’t wanna go swimming. I don’t wanna go on nature hikes. Fuck this.”
Fall arrives, and James enters eighth grade. One day he falls sick. The nurse calls home, the old man doesn’t answer, so James rides his bike to the shoddy upstairs apartment he and his dad called home. The door is open. He walks up the steps. He hears grunting: “Unh-unh-unh-unh-unh.”
“I walk down the hall a little bit,” he continues. “I crane my neck inside, and the old man, who is 62 years old at this point, is throwing the schnitzel to a checker that I know from the Safeway, who is the mother of a classmate of mine. They’re havin’ fuckin’ sexual intercourse, and the dog is trying to sleep at the foot of the bed with these legs thrashing all around her. I scope out the action a little bit, then I get embarrassed. I am afraid of revealing my presence up there, and I split. What this gives me is politics, contextually: Kennedy’s emergence, my reading of an adult novel for the first time, being horrified by it and the hidden sexual agenda of adults, my father wanting to get me to camp presumably so he could fuck this woman while I was gone and me catching him in the act. I think this is one of the big equations why I write the novels that I write.”
The new book begins where 1995’s American Tabloid left off: with John Kennedy’s assassins — mobsters, G-men, bagmen, lowlifes — waiting for the “big fucking scream” that would, soon enough, rip through the streets of downtown Dallas and far, far beyond. A Vegas cop named Wayne Tedrow Jr. has been sent to Dallas to off a black pimp. Tedrow doesn’t think he can carry out the hit. He’s a good cop born from a bad seed — his father is a violent racist, tight with powerful men. In time, Junior becomes a more vicious man than his father, because he knows better. Junior’s a small-timer whose actions have enormous ramifications, but these are the kind of men who fascinate Ellroy: the insignificant men who shape and control our history.
There are other small men in The Cold Six Thousand, which moves from Dallas to the casinos of Las Vegas to the bushes of Vietnam to bombed-out churches in Birmingham to the waters off Cuba’s shores to dark offices in D.C. FBI man Ward Littell, who first appeared in American Tabloid, is still working for Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover. Last time around, he had been blackmailed to safeguard the Mob’s interest in Vegas. But he’s always been a liberal with a conscience, a smart and civilized man among the thugs of power. In The Cold Six Thousand, he tries to manipulate Hoover into aiding the civil rights movement. Like all of Ellroy’s heroes who realize their sins too late, Littell is doomed. So is Pete Bondurant, the casual racist who does shitwork for the Mob, sells smack to blacks and wanders too deep into the muck. All three men pay to play their roles in history. They lose their souls, and if they find them at all, it’s usually too late — for them, for the country.
Ellroy’s books don’t just present an alternative history: They proffer instead a secret history made up of whispers, shadows, all the dirty garbage you suspect but never mention out loud, maybe out of fear it will take shape and kill you in your sleep. His are the novels of the profane and paranoid: Don DeLillo’s JFK conspiracy-fiction Libra (Ellroy’s inspiration for the first two books of this so-called Underworld USA trilogy) taken to its wildest extreme. If his earlier books were an attempt to answer what he called “the fucking why” — Why was his mother killed? Why is there such corruption and evil in this world? — then American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand wonder only about the hows: How did we get here? How do we move beyond our sins?
“I accumulate the detail toward answering the why, but there will never be an answer to that question for me,” Ellroy says. “When I talk about the wake of my mother’s death and becoming fiendishly curious about L.A.’s criminal and social history, I am seeking the answer to why my mother was killed, but there is no answer. There’s only the accumulation of detail. It’s not as if I will ever be able to shape these things into a snappy epigram, and I wouldn’t want it that way. When this career of mine is ended many years from now and I have fulfilled, to whatever degree, my mandate to re-create 20th-century American history through fiction, then hopefully the books will be read as obsessively as I’ve written them, and in the aggregate, people will point out themes and motifs that will serve to answer this question….
“It was said that Dashiell Hammett gave murder back to the people who really perpetrated it, and what I would like to say that I’ve done with the novel of realistic intrigue is to give it back to the key specific 20th-century perpetrators who are these goons of the American system.”
Ellroy started writing because he had no choice. He had absorbed so many noir novels during his childhood that he needed some way to vomit them out. And then there was his mother. And he was in love with a dead woman: Elizabeth Short, both pieces of her. Short was a Massachusetts beauty queen with big-screen daydreams who moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, posed for glamour-girl pics, then wound up bisected in a vacant lot in January 1947. The cops came up empty, just as they would when Ellroy’s own mother was found. Short, known as the Black Dahlia, was a drunk, a fuckaround — a shadow in a dark room. Ellroy would write about her, too, in 1987; he considers The Black Dahlia his breakthrough book. It would lead to three more about the nasty underside of Los Angeles in the 1940s and ’50s, the books that constitute his L.A. Quartet.
His first book, 1981’s Brown’s Requiem, was pretty tame stuff, all things considered: a story about a cop turned private dick hired by a nutso caddie to tail his cello-playing sister. It hinted at the Ellroy that was — at the time, he was still caddying on some of L.A.’s nicer greens — and the Ellroy to come — the guy obsessed with pervs, porn, pussy and police. The second book, Clandestine, was his first shot at dealing with his mother’s unsolved murder. Ellroy decided, in fiction, to solve the killing: He pinned it on his old man, an innocent. Then came his first trilogy, a series of books about an L.A. homicide cop named Lloyd Hopkins — “a basically shitty guy…a fascist fuckhead…a vessel of urban torment,” Ellroy wrote in 1987, for the introduction to L.A. Noir, which collected Blood on the Moon, Because the Night and Suicide Hill.
“That’s baby stuff compared to The Cold Six Thousand,” Ellroy says of his earliest books. “In the simplest, vulgarest way, when I wrote Brown’s Requiem and Clandestine and the three Hopkins books, my energy was dispersed, frankly, by chasing women.” His wife’s laughter is heard in the background. “I had two missions then. Writing The Black Dahlia freed me. Going back and writing that story and embracing that old obsession and old demon freed me. It freed my curiosity, and I went and wrote the L.A. Quartet from there, and then things just exploded.”
Ellroy has left L.A. behind. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, Helen Knode, a former writer for the L.A. Weekly. And he now writes all of American history, not just the yellowing past of his hometown. After the final installment in the Underworld USA trilogy, which will move through Watergate, Ellroy will collaborate with the ghost of Warren G. Harding. And he will keep on writing about what he calls “the lunatic country,” reinventing himself — and the language, and literature — each time out. It’s what he calls his mandate: to present the novel as “the great book of life.”
“My curiosity about people has grown exponentially,” he says. L.A.’s secret history has given way to America’s history. I’ve become conscious of language and its deployments and of a mission to coarsen, vulgarize and reinvent the American idiom.
“These concerns come to you if you’re candid with yourself and if you’re on a journey of truth and self-knowledge in your personal life. People ask me, ‘Could you write a contemporary-set novel?’ I say, ‘No, I have no perspective on it.’ Perspective comes. And if you’re honest with yourself and seek truth in your life, it will be at no cost to passion.”