It was love at first sight. I first met James Ellroy in the fall of 1993 at The Four Seasons restaurant, a midtown Manhattan mecca for publishing poobahs where lunch for two can easily exceed the advance for a first novel. The first word James uttered was “Woof!”–and thus did the Demon Dog of American Literature enter my life and GQ’s. In the five years since, James has contributed some of the finest journalism and fiction we have published, and all of it is included in this volume. Contrary to the convention that writers make their names in magazines before turning to books, James was at the top of his game as a novelist when he decided to try magazine writing.
James is a big man with a big voice and a big personality. Those who don’t know him well find him intimidating. So do those who know him well. And he is fearless as a Doberman, which I discovered early on when we were trying to decide on a perfect story. Having admired his The Black Dahlia, I acknowledged my own fascination with Hollywood murders of the ‘4os and ’50s. The conversation went something like this:
ME: You know, some Miss Idaho goes to Hollywood to be a star, doesn’t make it, works as a cocktail lounge waitress or a hooker, and winds up horribly and mysteriously murdered. JAMES: Well, I’m obsessed by an unsolved murder. My mother was murdered when I was 10. She had been drinking in some bar and left with a guy. They found her body on an access road by a high school. She had been strangled. They never found who did it. ME (excitedly): That’s it! Write your obsession. Reinvestigate it. Write it. Right away. JAMES: Yes, Godfather. (He calls me Godfather all the time. I like it. It makes me feel well-tailored.)
I didn’t find out until a couple of years later that James went immediately from my office to visit with his agent, Nat Sobel, a wise, compassionate man on every occasion but this one. Art wants me to write about my mother’s murder, said James. Don’t do it, advised Nat. It will dredge up a lot that I don’t think you want to confront. I’m gonna do it, said the Doberman. The article, “My Mother’s Killer,” appeared in our August 1994 issue and was one of the most widely praised magazine pieces of that year. James later expanded the piece into his bestselling memoir My Dark Places.
I am not alone in thinking that everything that James has written, indeed his very essence, has been shaped by the murder of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy. He acknowledges as much when writing of her in “My Mother’s Killer”: “The woman refused to grant me a reprieve. Her grounds were simple: My death gave you a voice, and I need you to recognize me past your exploitation of it.” James inscribed my copy of My Dark Places “She lives!”
Accompanying the article there was a photograph of James just after he has been told of his mother’s death. Look at his eyes. They are shocked, uncomprehending. Raised by his father, a rakish “Hollywood bottom feeder” (James’s words), who did or did not “pour the pork” to Rita Hayworth, James grew to be a teen punk, a peeping torn and a petty thief who broke into houses to sniff women’s panties. He filed away, in his mind, everything he saw when he was strung out on drugs or drunk on cheap booze or spending nine months in local lockups–nightmarish, photographic visions that would fuel his noirish fiction.
These complex tales of Los Angeles’s seamy underside provide the truest social history of the city in the 1940s and ’50s, an era of “bad white men doing bad tings in the name of authority.” Ellroy’s stories are as dense as an overcrowded prison, but his syiicopated style is deceptive: short, staccato, often alliterative bursts. But they are not riffs. Each muscular sentence follows the next and orderly advances the plot. His protagonists are deeply wounded men on both sides of the law, scarred and corrupted by what they have seen.
James had achieved a reputation as the best American hardboiled crime writer when his novel L.A. Confidential was turned into a critical and commercial hit movie, which happily introduced him to a much larger audience. He writes about that experience here in “Bad Boys in Tinseltown.” In this volume, too, are three short fictions that continue where L.A. Confidential ended: “Hollywood Shakedown,” “Hush-Hush,” and “Tijuana, Mon Amour.” James reprises Danny Getchell, the cannily corrupt star writer of Hush-Hush magazine, who has the grisly goods on almost everyone in Tinseltown and will blackmail anyone to obtain exclusive dirt. Ellroy gleefully dips in the muck his band of merry miscreants, including Jack Webb, Mickey Cohen, Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, Dick Contino, Sammy Davis Jr., Oscar Levant, and Rock Hudson. There is a raunchy ring of verisimilitude, a truly bizarre believability, to the way Ellroy makes them behave.
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