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Once a punk, prowler, pill popper and profligate panty-sniffer, author James Ellroy transformed his degenerate existence to become perhaps the greatest - if not most infamous - crime writer in the world. Ellroy's novels have been studious crossbreeds of fact and fiction, colliding in brutal fashion to create an alternative history of post-war Los Angeles. His obsession for the dark and unseemly, no doubt fueled by the unsolved murder of his mother in 1958, was clearly reflected in his characters - particularly the hard-edged, broken-down cops who struggle to redeem their violent natures through moral outrage brought forth by heinous crimes. His most enduring contribution to the genre was the L.A. Quartet, a series of dark, densely-packed novels spanning 1947-1958 and centering on four real-life Los Angeles murder cases investigated by fictional cops. The L.A. Quartet turned Ellroy into an international best-seller and landed him on the Hollywood map, thanks to the Oscar-winning adaptation of the third installment, "L.A. Confidential" (1997), making him the most celebrated practitioner of noir fiction since the 1940's Dashiell Hammett.Ellroy was born in Los Angeles on March 4, 1948. His father,...
Once a punk, prowler, pill popper and profligate panty-sniffer, author James Ellroy transformed his degenerate existence to become perhaps the greatest - if not most infamous - crime writer in the world. Ellroy's novels have been studious crossbreeds of fact and fiction, colliding in brutal fashion to create an alternative history of post-war Los Angeles. His obsession for the dark and unseemly, no doubt fueled by the unsolved murder of his mother in 1958, was clearly reflected in his characters - particularly the hard-edged, broken-down cops who struggle to redeem their violent natures through moral outrage brought forth by heinous crimes. His most enduring contribution to the genre was the L.A. Quartet, a series of dark, densely-packed novels spanning 1947-1958 and centering on four real-life Los Angeles murder cases investigated by fictional cops. The L.A. Quartet turned Ellroy into an international best-seller and landed him on the Hollywood map, thanks to the Oscar-winning adaptation of the third installment, "L.A. Confidential" (1997), making him the most celebrated practitioner of noir fiction since the 1940's Dashiell Hammett.
Ellroy was born in Los Angeles on March 4, 1948. His father, Armand, was an accountant, a womanizer and a Hollywood bottom-feeder who worked briefly as Rita Hayworth's business manager. Ellroy's mother, Jean, was a nurse fond of Early Times whiskey. His parents divorced when he was 6-years old, forcing him to spend weekdays with Jean and three weekends a month with Armand. His mother began a long string of meaningless affairs with men whom he called "uncle," causing the young Ellroy to grow more contemptuous of her as the years went by. On his tenth birthday, his mother told the boy he could choose who to live with - her or his dad. He chose dad. She slapped her son. He called her a drunk and a whore. She slapped him again. Three months later, Jean was found dead by some Little Leaguers in the shrubs next to El Monte High School, strangled by a chord and her nylon stockings. More relieved than stricken by grief, Ellroy moved in with his dad the day after his mom's murder, shed no more tears for the woman he both feared and loathed.
At 11-years old, his life changed once again when his dad gave him a book called "The Badge" by Jack Webb of "Dragnet" fame. Inside was a 10-page summary detailing the brutal murder of Elizabeth Short, infamously known as the Black Dahlia, and easily the most notorious crime in the history of L.A. Melding the homicides of Short and his mother together in his mind, Ellroy set off on a spree of reading crime fiction - an outlet that provided tidy resolutions at a time when his own life had gone asunder. In 1963, his dad suffered a debilitating stroke, forcing the son to care for him round the clock. A year later, Ellroy was arrested for shoplifting - his first of many trips to the slammer. Later still, while attending Fairfax High, a school heavily populated with Jewish students, he dressed as a Nazi and spoke out in favor of slavery. He was kicked out and never returned. He then joined the U.S. Army, but quickly realized he made a mistake and faked a nervous breakdown. Ellroy was discharged after three months, and returned home to watch his dad finally pass away in 1965. From there, his life descended into the tragic trifecta of alcoholism, drug-addiction and sexual obsession.
Ellroy began drinking heavily, consuming untold amounts of drugs - particularly swallowing the cotton wads from Benzedrex nasal inhalers - and masturbating incessantly. He prowled the neighborhood surrounding Hancock Park, breaking into wealthy homes to steal knickknacks, eat sandwiches and sniff women's panties. Nights were spent sleeping in abandoned buildings or in the bushes of Robert Burns Park. Over the next 12 years, Ellroy was picked up by police 30 or 40 times, by his estimate, landing him in jail for shoplifting, public drunkenness and other misdemeanors for an aggregate total of 4-8 months. In the mid-1970s, he landed in the hospital several times for pneumonia and was eventually told he had abscesses on his lungs that would kill him in six months if he didn't straighten out. A few weeks later, he landed back in the hospital with auditory hallucinations brought on by acute alcoholism. He was strapped into a bed where he scribbled on the wall: "I will not go insane." Ellroy prayed for his brain to be rewired, knowing well that he would soon be dead otherwise.
In 1977, Ellroy took his life back, joining Alcoholics Anonymous and quitting both drugs and booze. He took a $300-a-week job as a golf caddy at the Bel-Air Country Club, while harboring the dream of becoming a writer. His years spent in ruin had always been brightened by spending hours at the public library reading Hammett and Raymond Chandler. He spent a year outlining his first story in fits and starts. On Jan. 26, 1979, he began writing his first novel, Brown's Requiem (published in 1981), a conventional potboiler about a private eye investigating a crooked golf tournament that leads to a labyrinth of arson and murder. He sent the manuscript to agents he found in the Writer's Market, one of whom sold it to Avon. Ellroy earned $3,500 for his efforts, forcing him to remain on as a caddy at Bel-Air. His next novel, Clandestine (1982), was a thinly-veiled take on his mother's murder; a gritty, densely-plotted tale of an ambitious cop stripped of his badge while investigating a serial killer. Though he began to churn out books at break-neck speed, Ellroy had not yet managed to make it his sole source of income.
By 1984, Ellroy released two more novels, Blood on the Moon and Because the Night, the opening salvos of an intended five-part series focusing on the cold and brutal homicide detective, Lloyd Hopkins. Blood on the Mood marked the first time Ellroy used multiple perspectives with an omniscient narrator, a trait he would develop more fully later on. But after the third installment, Suicide Hill (1986), Ellroy had tired of Hopkins and managed to negotiate with his editor to end the series. He next released Killer on the Road (formerly Silent Terror) in 1986, a novel he wrote in desperate need of the $10,000 payday. A brutal, stomach-turning story of a serial killer told in a first-person narrative, Ellroy drew from his own experiences as a sexual prowler to give the novel a realistic and often creepy level of detail. It was his next novel, however, that transformed both Ellroy's life and the world of crime fiction. Long obsessed with the famed Black Dahlia case - that of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, who was kidnapped, tortured for days and found in a vacant lot cut in half with a smile slashed across her face - Ellroy felt it was time for his own take on the crime. Unabashed about using his mother's death as a springboard to promote his new novel, Ellroy self-financed his promotional tour, helping to make The Black Dahlia (1987) an international best-seller. Ellroy had finally arrived.
In 1987, Ellroy took his first tentative steps into Hollywood, when he optioned Blood on the Moon, which was reset in contemporary times and renamed "Cop" (1988), starring James Woods as the bloody-minded Lloyd Hopkins. Despite known talent and favorable reviews, "Cop" was subjected to a limited one-week release in theaters. Meanwhile, after tasting success with The Black Dahlia, Ellroy continued to churn out novels for what became his noted L.A. Quartet. The second installment, The Big Nowhere (1988), focused on two loner cops getting involved in two seemingly disconnected cases - one investigates a series of homosexual murders; the other infiltrates a group of left-wing radicals during the height of the Red Scare. By this time, Ellroy had hit his stride with his use of layered plots and multiple perspectives, elevating his prose beyond mere noir into a highly literate, be-bop style. Ellroy rounded out the quartet with L.A. Confidential (1990) - a dense, sprawling tale of murder, corruption and showbiz glitz -- and White Jazz (1992) - a hyper-kinetic yarn about a cop who breaks any and all rules to crack a case. Ellroy's publisher worried about the 900-page length of Jazz, imploring him to reduce to 350 pages. Ellroy removed all the verbs, creating an staccato prose that proved difficult, but engaging to read.
Influenced by Don Dellilo's Libra (1989), Ellroy abandoned the seedy streets of Los Angeles for his next novel, American Tabloid (1995), choosing instead to broaden his scope to encompass the entire nation in the first installment to his Underworld USA trilogy. Spanning the years 1958-1963, Ellroy followed a trio of underlings to powerful (and real-life-based) people who were more adept at influencing events than those they worked for. The book culminated in their involvement in the plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Ellroy turned to nonfiction for his next novel, My Dark Places (1996), part memoir; part investigation into his mother's murder that originated as an article in GQ magazine called "My Mother's Killer." Encouraged by his second wife, writer Helen Knode, and assisted by semi-retired homicide detective Bill Stoner, Ellroy delved into his mother's 38-year-old unsolved case. He rented a small furnished apartment in Los Angeles (he had by this time relocated to Connecticut, then Missouri) and used it as his headquarters for the investigation. Over the course of a year, Ellroy and Stoner reviewed all the evidence and interviewed as many witnesses as possible that were still alive and cognoscente, but never found her killer. He did, however, come to rediscover and love the woman he once thought was just a boozy slut. My Dark Places wowed critics and went on to become yet another best-seller.
In 1997, Ellroy got his first real taste of the Hollywood treatment - in this instance, the positive kind - when director Curtis Hanson and writer Brian Helgeland turned the thickly-plotted L.A. Confidential into an award-winning film. Ellroy was impressed with the film's creative forces for boiling down his supposedly adaptation-proof tome on crime and corruption on both sides of the law, citing that they managed to focus on the bare essentials while remaining true to the original spirit. Starring then-unknown Aussies Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce alongside Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito, "L.A. Confidential" became a critical and financial success, taking in nearly $65 million at the box office and walking away with numerous awards, including two Academy Awards. The success of "L.A. Confidential" opened the floodgates of demand for Ellroy's material, with virtually all of his novels and several short stories quickly optioned. Though he continued writing, his output for full-length novels declined precipitously after My Dark Places. A repackaging of the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy was released as L.A. Noir in 1998, followed by a collection of his GQ articles, "Crime Wave: Reportage and Fiction from the Underside of L.A." in 1999.
Ellroy's next brush with Hollywood, an adaptation of his first novel, "Brown's Requiem" (2000), was far less significant than "L.A. Confidential." The film, starring Michael Rooker and Selma Blair, was barely released in theaters before being shoved off to video stores, taking in a scant $3,000 in two theaters. In 2001, Ellroy released the second installment to his Underworld USA trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand, which picked up in the aftermath of the first Kennedy assassination and followed the three backroom players from the first novel, through real events leading up to Robert Kennedy's murder in 1968. Though the 700-page paperweight became his best-selling novel to date, many complained about its grueling prose ("She thrashed. She kicked. She swung. She clawed her neck. She broke her nails. She coughed her dentures out.") which pummeled readers like a hammer to the head. Ellroy, meanwhile, received 'story by' credit on Ron Shelton's hard-edged cop thriller, "Dark Blue" (2002), starring Kurt Russell and Ving Rhames as two LAPD cops trying to solve a complex murder amidst police corruption and racial tensions.
While Ellroy had several projects in the works - including television pilots - few came to fruition. He released another collection of essays and short stories, Destination Morgue! (2004), but much of it covered the same ground as Crime Wave and suffered from overuse of his hyper-alliterative style. He did, however, commence work on the third installment to the Underground USA trilogy, tentatively called Police Gazette (scheduled for 2007), which covered the 1968-1973 era up to Watergate.
Ellroy's next big screen treatment came courtesy of fellow fan of violence, director Brian De Palma, when he signed on to helm the adaptation of "The Black Dahlia" (2006). Starring Josh Harnett and Aaron Eckhart as two hard-edged cops who descend into obsession, corruption and sexual degeneracy, "The Black Dahlia" was a complicated and richly-textured noir thriller that focused not so much on the actual death of Elizabeth Short, but on those fixated on her brutal killing. Scarlett Johansson complicated matters in the classic femme fatale role, serving as the fulcrum between the two cops in an unexpected love triangle. The film was shot almost entirely in Bulgaria and debuted at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival to much fanfare. Meanwhile, Ellroy relived again the torture and murder of the 22-year-old B-list actress that had so haunted most of his life.
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