Ellroy was born in Los Angeles, California. His mother, Geneva Odelia (née Hilliker), was a nurse, and his father, Armand, was an accountant and a onetime business manager of Rita Hayworth. After his parents' divorce, Ellroy relocated to El Monte, California, with his mother. When Ellroy was 10 years old, his mother was raped and murdered. Ellroy later described his mother as "sharp-tongued [and] bad-tempered", unable to keep a steady job, alcoholic and sexually promiscuous. His first reaction upon hearing of her death was relief: he could now live with his father, whom he preferred. The police never found the perpetrator, and the case remains unsolved. The murder, along with reading The Badge by Jack Webb (a book comprising sensational cases from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department, a birthday gift from his father), was an important event of Ellroy's youth.
Ellroy's inability to come to terms with the emotions surrounding his mother's murder led him to transfer them onto another murder victim, Elizabeth Short. Nicknamed the "Black Dahlia," Short was a young woman murdered in 1947, her body cut in half and discarded in Los Angeles, in a notorious and unsolved crime. Throughout his youth, Ellroy used Short as a surrogate for his conflicting emotions and desires. His confusion and trauma led to a period of intense clinical depression, from which he recovered only gradually.
Ellroy dropped out of school and joined the US Army for a short while. During his teens and 20s, he drank heavily and abused Benzedrex inhalers. He was engaged in minor crimes (especially shoplifting, house-breaking, and burglary) and was often homeless. After serving some time in jail and suffering from pneumonia, during which he developed an abscess on his lung "the size of a large man's fist," Ellroy stopped drinking and began working as a golf caddy while pursuing writing. He later said, "Caddying was good tax-free cash and allowed me to get home by 2 p.m. and write books.... I caddied right up to the sale of my fifth book."
After a second marriage in the mid-1990s to Helen Knode (author of the 2003 novel The Ticket Out), the couple moved from California to Kansas City in 1995. In 2006, after their divorce, Ellroy returned to Los Angeles. He is a self-described recluse who possesses very few technological amenities, including television, and claims never to read contemporary books by other authors, aside from Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field, out of concern that they might influence his own. However, this does not mean that Ellroy does not read at all, as he claims in My Dark Places to have read at least two books a week growing up, eventually shoplifting more to satisfy his love of reading. He then goes on to say that he read works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
In 1981, Ellroy published his first novel, Brown's Requiem, a detective story drawing on his experiences as a caddy. He then published Clandestine and Silent Terror (which was later published under the title Killer on the Road). Ellroy followed these three novels with the Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy. The novels are centered on Hopkins, a brilliant but disturbed LAPD robbery-homicide detective, and are set mainly in the 1980s.
Hallmarks of his work include dense plotting and a relentlessly pessimistic—albeit moral—worldview. His work has earned Ellroy the nickname "Demon dog of American crime fiction."
Ellroy writes longhand on legal pads rather than on a computer. He prepares elaborate outlines for his books, most of which are several hundred pages long.
Dialog and narration in Ellroy novels often consists of a "heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular" with a particular use of period-appropriate slang. He often employs stripped-down staccato sentence structures, a style that reaches its apex in The Cold Six Thousand and which Ellroy describes as a "direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that's declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards." This signature style is not the result of a conscious experimentation but of chance and came about when he was asked by his editor to shorten his novel L.A. Confidential by more than one hundred pages. Rather than removing any subplots, Ellroy abbreviated the novel by cutting every unnecessary word from every sentence, creating a unique style of prose. While each sentence on its own is simple, the cumulative effect is a dense, baroque style.
While his early novels earned him a cult following and notice among crime fiction buffs, Ellroy earned much greater success and critical acclaim with the L.A. Quartet—The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. The four novels represent Ellroy's change of style from the tradition of classic modernist noir fiction of his earlier novels to what has been classified as postmodern historiographic metafiction. The Black Dahlia, for example, fused the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short with a fictional story of two police officers investigating the crime.
In 1995, Ellroy published American Tabloid, the first novel in a series informally dubbed the "Underworld USA Trilogy" that Ellroy describes as a "secret history" of the mid-to-late 20th century. Tabloid was named TIME's fiction book of the year for 1995. Its follow-up, The Cold Six Thousand, became a bestseller. The final novel, Blood's a Rover, was released on September 22, 2009.
After publishing American Tabloid, Ellroy began a memoir, My Dark Places, based on his memories of his mother's murder, the unconventional relationship he had with her, and his investigation of the crime. In the memoir, Ellroy mentions that his mother's murder received little news coverage because the media were still fixated on the murder of mobster Johnny Stompanato, who was dating actress Lana Turner. Frank C. Girardot, a reporter for The San Gabriel Valley Tribune, accessed files on Geneva Hilliker Ellroy's murder from detectives with Los Angeles Police Department. Based on the cold case file, Ellroy and investigator Bill Stoner worked the case but gave up after 15 months, believing any suspects to be dead. In 2008, The Library of America selected the essay "My Mother's Killer" from My Dark Places for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
Ellroy is currently writing a "Second L.A. Quartet" taking place during the Second World War, with some characters from the first L.A. Quartet and the Underworld USA Trilogy returning younger. The first book is called Perfidia and was released in 2014. The second book is titled This Storm and the manuscript is due in the fall of 2017.
Perfidia was published on September 9, 2014. A Waterstones exclusive limited edition of Perfidia was published two days later and included an essay by Ellroy titled "Ellroy’s History — Then and Now." Ellroy dedicated Perfidia "To Lisa Stafford." The epigraph is "Envy thou not the oppressor, And choose none of his ways" from Proverbs 3:31.
Ellroy in collaboration with the Los Angeles Police Museum and Glynn Martin, the museum's executive director, released LAPD '53 on May 19, 2015. Photography from the museum's archives are presented alongside Ellroy's writings about crime and law enforcement during that era.
In media appearances, Ellroy has adopted an outsized, stylized public persona of hard-boiled nihilism and self-reflexive subversiveness. He frequently begins public appearances with a monologue such as:
Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog with the hog-log, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin' family, if the name of your family is Manson.
Another aspect of his public persona involves an almost comically grand assessment of his work and his place in literature. For example, he told the New York Times, "I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music."
Ellroy frequently has espoused conservative political views, which have ranged from a vague anti-liberalism to authoritarianism. In an October 15, 2009, Rolling Stone interview, Ellroy said that in the 1960s and 1970s "I was never a peacemaker; I was a fuck-you right-winger." He has also been an outspoken and unquestioning admirer of the Los Angeles Police Department (despite his explicit depictions of brutality, corruption and Machiavellian bureaucratic scheming in the LAPD that appear in some of his works), and he dismisses the department's flaws as aberrations, telling the National Review that the coverage of the Rodney King beating and Rampart police scandals were overblown by a biased media. Nevertheless, like other aspects of his persona, he often deliberately obscures where his public persona ends and his actual views begin. When asked about his "right-wing tendencies," he told an interviewer, "Right-wing tendencies? I do that to fuck with people." Similarly, in the film Feast of Death, his (now ex-) wife describes his politics as "bullshit," an assessment to which Ellroy responds only with a knowing smile. Privately, Ellroy opposes the death penalty and gun control (he owns over 30 guns). Of the current political environment, Ellroy told Rolling Stone in 2009:
I thought Bush was a slimeball and the most disastrous American president in recent times. I voted for Obama. He's a lot like Jack Kennedy—they both have big ears and infectious smiles. But Obama is a deeper guy. Kennedy was an appetite guy. He wanted pussy, hamburgers, booze. Jack did a lot of dope.
Structurally, several of Ellroy's books, such as The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid, and The Cold Six Thousand, have three disparate points of view through different characters, with chapters alternating between them. Starting with The Black Dahlia, Ellroy's novels have mostly been historical dramas about the relationship between corruption and law enforcement.
A predominant theme of Ellroy's work is the myth of "closure". "Closure is bullshit", Ellroy often remarks, "and I would love to find the man who invented closure and shove a giant closure plaque up his ass." In his works characters often die or vanish quickly before otherwise traditional closure points in order to capitalize this idea.
Ellroy has claimed that he is done writing noir crime novels. "I write big political books now," he says. "I want to write about LA exclusively for the rest of my career. I don't know where and when."
On April 29, 2015, Ellroy and Lois Duncan were the Grandmasters at the 2015 Edgar Awards.
Several of Ellroy's works have been adapted to film, including Blood on the Moon (adapted as Cop), L.A. Confidential, Brown's Requiem, Killer on the Road/Silent Terror (adapted as Stay Clean), and The Black Dahlia. In each instance, screenplays based on Ellroy's work have been penned by other screenwriters.
While he has frequently been disappointed by these adaptations (such as Cop), he was very complimentary of Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland's screenplay for L.A. Confidential at the time of its release. In succeeding years, however, his comments have been more reserved:
L.A. Confidential, the movie, is the best thing that happened to me in my career that I had absolutely nothing to do with. It was a fluke—and a wonderful one—and it is never going to happen again—a movie of that quality.L.A. ConfidentialL.A. ConfidentialL.A. ConfidentialDid you go out and buy the bookwhat the fuck good are you to me?
Shortly after viewing three hours of unedited footage for Brian De Palma's adaptation of The Black Dahlia, Ellroy wrote an essay, "Hillikers," praising De Palma and his film. Ultimately, nearly an hour was removed from the final cut. Of the released film, Ellroy told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Look, you’re not going to get me to say anything negative about the movie, so you might as well give up." He had, however, mocked the film's director, cast, and production design before it was filmed.
In 2008, Daily Variety reported that HBO, along with Tom Hanks's production company, Playtone, was developing American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand for either a miniseries or ongoing series.
Ellroy co-wrote the original screenplay for the 2008 film Street Kings but refused to do any publicity for the finished film.
In a 2009 interview, Ellroy himself stated, "All movie adaptations of my books are dead."
In a 2012 interview, when asked about how movie adaptations distort his books, he remarked, "[Film studios] can do whatever the f–k they want as long as they pay me."1993 James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction
1995 White Jazz
2001 James Ellroy's Feast of Death
2006 Murder by the Book: "James Ellroy"
2011 James Ellroy's L.A.: City of Demons
1997 L.A. Confidential
1998 Brown's Requiem
2002 Stay Clean
2002 Dark Blue
2003 Das Bus
2005 James Ellroy presents Bazaar Bizarre
2006 The Black Dahlia
2008 Street Kings
2008 Land of the Living
1992 "Since I Don't Have You" adapted by Steven A. Katz for Showtime's Fallen Angels.
2011 James Ellroy's L.A.: City of Demons for Investigation Discovery. James Ellroy's L.A.: City of Demons on IMDb